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The N-Word and Language as Property

Debates about whether Whites in academia — professors or students — are entitled to sling and fling the N-word with abandon, be it in a song, a “lesson” or some sort of speculative “thought experiment” (as seems to be the case with the most recent incident) are not a bug, but a feature of a society structured by racial dominance, oppression and exploitation.

Such debates are a function of centuries-old conditioning, reinforcing and upholding — both by legal and cultural decree — the notion that Whites have a right to, quite literally, everything. Internet comment forums on this topic — seemingly dominated by frothing White men — are a reflection of this same toxic belief system.

The concepts of property and ownership in relation to whiteness warrant sustained attention in discussions about these “debates.” For Ta-Nehisi Coates, Whites’ expectations for untethered ownership and access extends to language. As has been illustrated in recent news coverage, this expectation has implications for not only teaching and learning, but inclusion and exclusion.

Prominent civil rights scholar and teacher Cheryl Harris long ago illustrated how the emergence of whiteness as property began as a function of racial domination over Black bodies. Notions of property range from physical (i.e., “tangible”) people, places and things, to intangible (e.g. laws that protected whiteness and White identity and cultural expectations for said protections). Although Harris does not cover language specifically in her discussion of whiteness as property, she does analyze the relationship between property and expectations, and argues that “[i]n a society structured on racial subordination, White privilege became an expectation and…whiteness became the quintessential property for personhood.”

Expectations, in the context of whiteness and White privilege, apply to language use. Whites have come to expect that even casual, well-intended or perhaps “instructive” use of language that was created to enslave, oppress, batter and disenfranchise people of color is their inalienable right. All educators, all students and all institutions of higher education should have a problem with this misguided and dangerous expectation.

“What is worse: A White man punching a Black man or calling him the N-word?”

There is a lot wrong with speculative exercises about racism and oppression. In their most basic form, speculative thought experiments such as these presume that both sides of the “debate” can effectively be argued for or against —that both sides of the argument have equal merit, and that all people at all times can, will and are in a position to engage the “debate” objectively.

To be sure, such assumptions are steeped in White privilege. Support for these exercises are a manifestation of what my colleague, David Shih, has referred to as the specious logic of the “marketplace of ideas.” Far from an innocent or objective thought experiment, what we have here is an exercise in casual racism facilitated by a White professor with historically situated institutional power. What we have here is someone legally, institutionally, culturally and socially protected from any real ramifications, so long as our law, our institutions and our culture remain invested in maintaining the status quo of a society built on and structured by racial subordination.

More troubling about this debate is the way by which different groups of students are positioned differently within it. Notwithstanding Princeton’s legacy as a predominantly White and historically exclusive institution, none of us know precisely the racial dynamic of that classroom, or the students who decided to vote with their feet on the day that they were encouraged to measure and compare degrees of emotional and physical violence against a Black man as imagined by their professor.

I am confident in my interpretation, however, that there were at least several students present on that day who felt it fit to resist, thereby removing themselves from a situation in which those who remained were given the power and privilege to measure acts of violence against a Black subject. That is what we get with speculative exercises about racism veiled as thought experiments with very real consequences, however unintended: A professor wielding untethered access to language historically designed to batter and exclude, and students who emerge from such experiences assuming that they, too, have the power and right to wield same, and that this power and these rights are ultimately protected by the institutions that house them. Whiteness and language are reified as their property, their unalienable right, no matter the context within which that language emerged, and no matter its effects on those positioned differently. In sum, the exercise hurts everyone subject to it, albeit in very different ways.

There is nothing “debatable” about the use of the N-word, and there is nothing objective about such speculative exercises, no matter the academic “instruction” within which such exercises are cloaked. And with this argument, I wish to extend a thought experiment to this same professor, those who have protected him from any real scrutiny and objection, and the internet echo chamber that supports him. I draw from philosopher Frantz Fanon who, in 1952, asked the following: “Is there in truth any difference between one racism and another? Do not all of them show the same collapse, the same bankruptcy of man?”

Dr. Christina Berchini is an assistant professor in the English Department at the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire.

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