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Written by Mehrose Ahmad, Sumaita Hasan, and Mohima Sattar
“Before high school, I attended schools that were arguably more diverse than Townsend in their thorough integration of white, black, hispanic, and asian students. However, it is at Townsend, a school with a predominantly asian population, that I have heard the word used the most,” remarks junior Mya Allen.
“Nigga”—despite the decades that have passed, has not died in its use. Its presence remains at large in the media, pop culture, and in schools; Townsend Harris High School is no exception. Here, the word spills out of the mouths of hundreds of students at an ever changing rate. Some students claim that they hear the word more often here at THHS than in their middle schools, which had a higher percentage of African Americans.
Over the past four years, the black population has not surpassed seven percent in THHS. In the current year, 71 black students attend the school out of 1,127. That is 71 black students as opposed to 129 hispanic, 248 white, and 653 asian, among other minorities. Yet, it appears that the majority of the student body uses this word, becoming desensitized to what it once meant—a definition originally associated with the dehumanization of African Americans and one that has not yet been completely extinguished.
The Word in School
Violence and prejudice still exist against African Americans on a daily basis; the cases of Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin resonate today as cases of controversy muddling the relationship between African Americans and American society. On February 27, members of the Ku Klux Klan, a nativist group known for its beliefs of white supremacy, staged a rally that resulted in thirteen arrests and three stabbings in Anaheim, California, a rather diverse city. Yet, such events do not mitigate the frequency of the use of the N-word, a word that continues to encapsulate African American struggles for many people.
As students transitioned from middle to high school, they began to hear the word to varying degrees. Freshman Marsad Kabir remarks that in THHS, he “probably hears the word five times a day.” Freshman Eric Wu states, “Usually when people are having a friendly conversation or walking by, I hear the word used in friendly conversations and it doesn’t seem like a big deal to the people who are saying it.” Others, such as sophomore Adeola Kaosarah Adeleye, heard the word less in high school, attributable to the higher African American population present in their old schools.
Although junior Genova Brown noticed little difference in how many times she heard the word, she adds, “it is really disturbing because Townsend is only around 7% black whereas [her] middle school was 95% black.” Junior Isaac So brought up the idea that it might be the generation and how society is shaping itself up to be. “I hear it much more in high school, but I wouldn’t be surprised if middle schoolers used the word often,” he says.
The dean of John Bowne High School David Cocheo says, “Being a dean, I hear that word all day long. I hear it so many times it is uncountable…when I hear it, it makes me cringe. The time and place for that word is with your friends, not at school or work.”
U.S. history teacher Charlene Levi recounts a story in which a student jokingly said, “‘Yo Ms. Levi, what’s good my N@@ga!.’” She adds, “I was horrified. Before I even opened my mouth to say anything, the student energetically apologized for his words. Must’ve been my facial expression that gave away the hurt I felt that someone at THHS would openly use the N-word in a happy-go-lucky way with someone other than a peer.”
In linguistic terms, the only difference between “nigga” and “nigger” is the difference in pronunciation. However, there is a conception that the former term has gained a new meaning from its rife usage.
Some propose the idea that the hard “-er” is “completely unacceptable to use, such as Eric, who adds that “One term can be used in friendly contexts and as slang all around the country. However, the other term is quite derogatory and is used to insult someone. I guess people have gotten used to hearing ‘nigga’ in slang and in everyday conversations.”
Mya adds, “I understand the negativity surrounding the word. As long as I’ve been aware of my race and its perception, I’ve also been aware of an underlying prejudice against me. Why, in a world in which the historical implications of such a word have not been forgotten, do students of all races and creeds at a school of prestige choose to speak with a misunderstanding of how the word makes me or the millions of people of color residing in NYC feel? My theory is that we choose to ignore these implications, lock them away in a suitcase of soiled laundry along with every other truth begging political correctness. Why? Not for lack of guilt or memory, but simply because it is easier.”
The Evolution of the Word
Some condone the use of the word as a substitute for terms like “bro,” or “friend,” such as Isaac, who remarks, “Many people have spoken out that they take offense to this word, but I feel that they fail to realize that times are changing. Those who are offended are the minority. Language is constantly changing and in flex, the word ‘nigga’ is no exception. What it means now and what it used to mean are two completely different things.”
On the other hand, Mr. O thinks, “If the word has very hurtful history, then we need to decide as a society if it is a hurtful word that we do not want to throw around casually. It’s not for me to decide. I urge our students to use language responsibly because sometimes one word can really make an impression on someone. It’s all about the context. If something does have a hurtful past, it’s best to avoid it. We cannot stop anyone from using every word in the English language, but we can, at least we here in this building, give some thought as we use these words.”
Mya remarks, “It is easier to group the N-Word on a list with words like ‘bro,’ ‘homie,’ ‘homeboy,’ and ‘friend.’ This list unites, bringing people of all kinds together under the guise of friendship. But does a word that has proven so hurtful, even with an ‘-a’ at the end, truly belong among a list connoting unity? To me, this word belongs on another list, one with words like ‘negro,’ ‘nigger,’ ‘colored,’ ‘black,’ and ‘African American.’ There is but one difference in that my list is one of labels, the sole purpose of which is to define people with darker skin.”
Presence in Curriculum
The N-word appears in three books part of the THHS English curriculum, excluding electives. They include: Go Tell It on the Mountain, Lord of the Flies, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in which the word appears 219 times.
Throughout the country, there has been much debate on whether or not The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn should remain in the American Canon because of its liberal use of the word. At one time, it was censored throughout various school districts.
Many students agree that it is acceptable to use the word in classic literature.
In regards to Huckleberry Finn, Mya says, “I feel that to a certain extent, the only way to effectively integrate it into the curriculum is to stop treating it as though it is a dirty word, but treat it as though it is a piece of history. It is naive to act as though students have not heard or used the word.”
Owen believes that “If the N-word is found in books related to slavery and the whole period of slavery in this country, it’s fine. A good example is Huckleberry Finn because it is set in the 1800s, down south. It’s the reality of the situation.”
Adeola comments, “The N-word is used very cautiously, so that people like me don’t get offended. The educational system has molded it in a way that it’s very sensitive to the ear.”
Mr. O says, “Let’s say your classroom is looking at constitutional uses of free speech or examining an example of hate speech in your law class, then that’s one way of looking at it. If you have a class that examines the root causes of racism and that word is used in historic writing, you may want to bring it to light.” However, he adds that “if that word is used gratuitously or to upset someone, then you have to consider why you would want to use it in the classroom. If the word is used in some kind of frivolous song that has no meaningful context, then I would say skip it.”
Ms. Levi says, “If the word is being used in a literary or primary source, as a teaching tool to inform students about the origin and uses of the word, than I am for it. But I also feel that the discussion happens within the classroom and then once students leave the classroom, it is back to what they are used to.”
The Question of Entitlement
Many feel that African Americans are more entitled to using the N-word than other racial groups because it is a term coined against their culture and they bear its burdensome history.
Some African Americans agree with this while others believe no one should perpetuate the usage of the word.
Tyler finds there is “less of a sense of entitlement and more of reclaiming the word for a lighter use.” He continues, “It is a well known fact that those on the top of the racial hierarchy (whites) have used ‘nigga’ to keep blacks in an inferior mindset and role and to put us down. When the word is used by a black person to another black person, it may not have a negative connotation, but if it’s said by that of another race, it’s simply not your place to say it.”
On the other hand, Genova says, “I find it less offensive when black people use it [nigga] because it’s like turning a word that has been used to degrade us into a form of endearment. The confusing part is hearing people who are non-black use it. I’m okay with hispanics using it, especially Puerto Ricans or Dominicans because they’re also minorities. Although I try not to have a problem when white or asian people use it, something in me cringes when I hear them say it, especially white people. For me it’s because many white people in areas down south still use the word to offend people.”
Adversely, some argue that anyone can use the word depending on the situation. Isaac states, “The word ‘nigga’ is fine to use most of the time. The time not to use it is if you’re not black, in the middle of Harlem, or in some other mostly black neighborhood and the way you’re using it seems like an insult.”
Some students say no one should be allowed to use the word. “While the N-word is generally associated with one race, I don’t see any reason why one race should be criticized for using it and not the other,” comments Cerissa.
Ms. Levi adds, “No one should use the word. The fact that African Americans use the word is even more disturbing to me. What kills me is that other ethnic groups will use the N-word unless they are around African Americans. That means that people know that the use of the word is wrong. If they didn’t feel it was wrong to use, they would use it in diverse groups as well.”
The N-Word Versus other Derogatory Language
Some students say that there is no basis for comparison between the N-word and other derogatory terms because the N-word has changed meaning to fit the jargon of the newer generations.
The word “gay,” though not associated with race, is a word deemed offensive toward the LGBT community and less acceptable to use in society. However, the question of entitlement once again resurges as to who is allowed to speak the word.
“We are the group impacted by such a derogatory word. The modern use of it by us should not be questioned. This is similar to the way the word ‘queer’ was reclaimed by the LGBT community,” Tyler remarks.
He adds, “There are other terms that mean really negative things. I’ve seen ‘bitch’ cause problems in public because men have used the word towards women, but some of my female friends have used it towards their female friends also, similar to the use of ‘nigga.’”
Likewise, Isaac says, “I don’t think it [nigga] compares to other terms because it’s becoming less and less of a derogatory term and more of a compliment. Maybe a similar analogy would be the word ‘bitch,’ when referring to a female. It can be a compliment or an insult.”
Junior Daniell Morales states, “I believe that saying ‘nigga’ is more socially unacceptable than saying ‘gay’ because of the connotations each one provides. When I hear ‘nigga,’ I refer to the thoughts of slavery, a dark and horrid time for people. As of ‘gay’ being used as an adjective, I see it in the sense that when someone uses it, they don’t have a proper grasp over what they’re saying. In denotative terms, ‘gay’ can mean homosexual, gleeful or carefree. Unless used in the proper form, the user only sounds inferior.”
Prevalence in pop culture
The N-word has a long and tragic history, one whose prominence stretches from slavery in America to today.
The word is used consistently in some of today’s music. Beyonce’s new song “Formation” was met with opposition due to its lyrics: “I like my Negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils,” and its music video, which depicts scenes relating to police brutality.
The N-word is also ubiquitous in the media and the internet. According to many, the word is the epitome of pop culture today, putting aside much of its tainted history as a derogatory term used to belittle African Americans. Some believe that the word’s prevalence in the media allows them to use it as well.
Genova claims,“While I still don’t think we [black people] should be using it, I’m okay with it because a lot of my favorite black rappers use it.”
Ms. Levi adds, “The use of the N-word in current songs and in day to day lingo [proves] that students use the word without knowing the history of the word. Some believe that the times have changed the meaning of the word or by using it as a brotherly term, it regains the power of the N-word from the White oppressors that had given it birth in the first place. But I just don’t agree with those notions at all.”
Owen believes that when African Americans use the word, it “just makes the problem worse, as it instills this notion in the young generation’s minds that it is okay to use the word if they see their idols and role models using it.”
Mr. O concludes, “the goal of this school is to raise the kinds of students who use language responsibly and when faced with challenging, divise, inflammatory language, our students can navigate these waters fairly well and judge for themselves.”