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LSA senior Dylan Gilbert was sitting in a class discussion with the other 20-or-so members of her class, when her English professor Scott Lyons read out loud the N-word from a short story by American writer William Faulkner. Gilbert, uncomfortable with the situation, left the discussion that day.

Though the class carried on, the professor’s choice to read the racial slur and the student’s protest ultimately raised an ongoing academic debate: whether or not the use of racial slurs from academic text is appropriate in the classroom. 

In June 2020, around a year later, Gilbert told her story on Twitter, where she received an outpouring of support from fellow University of Michigan students, alumni, faculty and staff, many condemning the professor and the University for tolerating the behavior. 

“I was just kind of exhausted,” Gilbert told The Daily. “I don't feel like I should have to sit in a room and have a non-Black person keep saying the N-word in front of me. So I just quietly packed up my stuff into my bag, walked out of class and did not say anything.”

Details of the incident surfaced amid a renewed national commitment against systemic racism, thereby calling into question the impact classrooms have on perpetuating racial injustice. 

“The environment wasn’t comfortable anymore,” Gilbert said. “I felt targeted in the environment, and I felt unsafe in the environment, and I didn’t feel like I was learning the way I needed to learn. So when you use racial slurs in the classroom, you’re taking away some sense of equality in the classroom because now a group of your students aren’t feeling the way they should be feeling to properly learn.”

Gilbert’s tweets also included screenshots of email exchanges between her and Lyons after the class, in which Lyons did not offer an apology but committed to “avoid uttering the word for the rest of the term.” For the next class period, according to Gilbert, Lyons assigned an article defending the use of the word.

“I’m not sure I understand the distinction between assigning a work with the n-word (written by a non-black writer and read by mostly non-black readers) and reading it out loud — imagination versus exhaulation? — but I do take your point,” Lyons wrote in the email exchanges.

The Daily reached out to Lyons multiple times for a comment, but was referred to University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald.

“Students have a variety of ways to raise concerns about their classroom experiences,” Fitzgerald wrote in an email to The Daily. “In this case, these concerns are being addressed through the appropriate channels.”

This incident does not appear to be an isolated one, either. Universities across the country have struggled to address how professors should approach teaching racial slurs. Some institutions have taken to suspending professors for using racial slurs in an academic environment, while others have defended their use based on academic freedom.

English professor Susan Parrish often teaches texts from Southern literature, which can include epithets against various groups. She explained how voicing these slurs can harm the ability for students to learn effectively and feel respected in the classroom.

“The classroom is a space of analysis and a space of mutual learning and of (the) responsibility to (not only) take care of each other while challenging each other, but (also) challenging each other equally and fairly to increase our understanding,” Parrish said. “I also feel like epithets against any group … makes a classroom situation feel unequal and feel potentially hostile, and then it decreases certain students’ possibility to learn and to feel welcome and to feel like they belong.” 

Parrish said she usually addresses the use of offensive language at the start of the semester with her class. But ultimately, the violent and historical weight that many slurs against groups carry, Parrish explained, does not warrant saying the word.

“I think where I ultimately come down is that you can’t have a student-by-student decision about this, it has to be something we set up at the beginning that if there are (slurs) in the text that have been associated with violence, suppression or oppression, we should not spread those words,” Parrish said. “Students do have to look at them as they’re doing their reading, but there’s no reason that we have to give breath to those words in live time together.”

According to Vershawn Young, an African-American studies professor at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, banning the use of the N-word in classrooms is also not a solution.

After witnessing a similar situation in which a University of Waterloo professor used the N-word during class, the University of Waterloo released a statement in a June 2020 article, saying the university “unequivocally believes there is no place for the use of the N-word in class, on campus or in our community.” 

In response, Young wrote an article describing the harmful effects of completely banning the use of the N-word in the classroom, explaining that it censors his language as a Black man and scholar. Prohibiting the use of the N-word, Young further explained in an interview with The Daily, provides a disservice to the cultural complexity of the word.

“If you ban the word and in text, especially African-American cultural text, you are not only diminishing one way in which the word is used, but six or seven ways in which the word is used,” Young said. “You cannot get to an accurate interpretation or a deep cultural understanding if you ban the word or if you only say that the word can be the ‘N-word,’ because the ‘N-word’ itself does not capture the various ways in which the word functions in African-American culture.”

Young further noted that censorship of any kind should not be enforced without careful consideration of its impact on not only particular groups, as well as the very meaning the author was trying to convey. 

“I believe that there is an easy answer,” Young said. “The easy answer is yes, the word should be allowed to be used in very careful, pedagogical ways and not in casual conversation. But I think in instructional conversations and texts where the word appears, it should not be erased because when you erase it, it is not true to the author’s intentions, is not true to the author’s text and it changes the meaning.”

Whitney Peoples is the director of education development and assessment services and coordinator of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Initiatives at the University of Michigan’s Center for Research on Learning and Teaching. In an email to The Daily, Peoples explained how these conversations are deeply layered and do not have easy solutions. 

“These are complex issues that defy easy answers or quick fixes for students and instructors alike,” Peoples wrote. “Any engagement with assigned texts containing racial epithets in the classroom should, at a minimum, be strongly linked to course learning objectives and be accompanied by clear and actionable ground rules for respectful and ethical engagement. The Center does not condone the gratuitous use of any racial epithet in the classroom, or elsewhere, that works to belittle, intimidate, or harm others.”

Young echoed similar sentiments and said these conversations should not yield simple solutions, but rather should be carefully considered and strongly aligned with the academic texts.

“I do not believe that teachers should be in the classroom just freely bouncing the word around,” Young said. “It’s just too serious. And I do not believe that non-Black teachers should be using the word outside of its textual context. It should only be used in the textual context. But I do not believe that it should be banned. I think that’s too easy, I think it's too simple and I think that it does more harm and damage than good.”

Peoples also outlined recommended protocols for how professors should approach teaching texts that contain racial slurs, starting with establishing clear learning objects and initiating honest and open conversations with students at the start of the course. 

“Instructors should also take seriously the responses of minoritized and marginalized students whose identities may be the target of racist epithets and should remember that their classes are not taking place in a vacuum,” Peoples said. “Students and instructors are coming to class and potentially engaging in discussions about language deeply implicated in violent racist histories and in contemporary racism. These class discussions represent yet another way that students & instructors are forced to confront the collective harm and trauma of racism, both past and present.”

While these conversations will likely continue to be discussed in the future, Parrish said one thing is certain: The work in classrooms should inspire respectful and mutual learning.

“I think since March, particularly for people of African descent, for Black Americans to see disproportionate deaths in COVID-19 and then disproportionate incarceration and being targeted for police violence, it makes painfully clear the ongoing inequality in our country,” Parrish said. “And so it should be really clear that what we’re working on in our classes is to dismantle, to understand how we got here and not to replicate the inequality in the classroom, but rather to make the classroom be a place of equal, respectful inquiry and mutual understanding.”

Summer News Editor Kristina Zheng can be reached at krizheng@umich.edu.

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