Official’s use of n-word in class discussion on racial language plunges Cambridge into controversy
CAMBRIDGE — The School Committee member came to the high school classroom to discuss racial language and why the district’s computers block certain websites that include some slurs but not others.
But when the committee member, Emily Dexter, who is white, used the full version of the n-word as part of that discussion, she outraged many in the room and beyond and triggered a fiery debate in a city that prides itself on embracing diversity.
Dexter later apologized, but it has not quelled the voices of students who say their concerns about racial insensitivity have long been ignored by elected officials and district leaders.
This week, Dexter’s colleagues on the School Committee voted to investigate the incident, the details of which are not in dispute.
The controversy began during a Jan. 10 panel discussion held in Kevin Dua’s US history 2 class at Cambridge Rindge and Latin, the city’s only high school. In the weeks prior, Dua, who also advises the school’s Black Student Union, had launched his students on a final project on the US roots of racist language.
The project was titled “RECLAIMING [N-word] v. Cracker: Editing Racial Context In/For Cambridge,” and it used the full spelling of the n-word. The goal was to explore how the power of racial language has shaped the nation — through laws, protests, and content on social media — since the Civil War, according to an e-mail Dua sent to School Committee members.
Dua, in an interview Wednesday, said the aim was to look at how some racial slurs have historically been used to empower and suppress certain people. But while doing their research, Dua said, his students discovered the school-issued Chromebooks block websites that include some racial slurs, such as the n-word and cracker, a disparaging term for whites, but not other terms.
The filtering system prevents students from viewing objectionable Internet content — determined by the software vendors — including racial slurs, pornography, and unsafe material, according to a Cambridge schools spokeswoman.
Dua said he invited members of the School Committee, the superintendent, and district IT officials — people with insight on the filtering system — to give their professional perspective in his class. Along with Dexter and the superintendent, Kenneth N. Salim, the other panelists were the district’s chief information officer, a head of instructional technology, and committee member Laurance V. Kimbrough.
Dua, who is black, acknowledged that he used the full n-word during the introduction of the conversation and the panel. But he said he was shocked and offended when Dexter used the full word as she addressed a point about how the word was blocked by the district’s computer system.
“For many of my students, once it was said, there was a sense that they didn’t know how to process it, even though” they had been focusing on the assignment, Dua said, noting the historical context of the word.
In a brief phone interview this week, Dexter expressed regret: “I knew immediately it was a mistake.’’ She referred other questions to the statement she read aloud during Tuesday’s School Committee meeting, when she publicly apologized for using the word before her colleagues voted to launch an investigation into the matter.
Many students and adults present in the class last month were offended to “hear a white person speak that word, particularly an elected official,” she said in her statement.
Salim, who sent an e-mail about the incident to the school community on Jan. 30, acknowledged in an interview that he felt “uncomfortable” when he heard Dexter use the word and that he addressed the matter with her after the panel discussion. He also said he felt a “level of discomfort” when Dua used the word as well.
But Kimbrough, a former student, teacher, and guidance counselor at Cambridge Rindge and Latin, said that since they were invited to discuss the n-word and school filters, he saw nothing wrong with Dexter’s use of the word in that context.
“I was not offended by what was said,’’ said Kimbrough, who is black. “I believe it happened in the spirit of the conversation that we were having about the n-word. I also want to be clear that if other people were bothered by it, I respect those feelings.”
Kimbrough said Dua approached him after the class to discuss Dexter’s use of the word.
“This is tricky stuff,’’ Kimbrough said. “If our students are leaving the conversation with some people being able to use the word and some people not being able to use the word, how do we want to be able to teach those lessons to our young people?”
Dexter said she met with Dua the following week and visited his class to talk with the students.
“My goal was to apologize and engage them in a discussion,’’ she said in the statement, “but the students felt my apology was insincere. In hindsight, I realized I should have simply conveyed my apologies.”
Dexter added that what should have been clear was that “I should not say this word, regardless of the context or my intent. I am deeply sorry for the harm I’ve caused the students and the adults in the community, particularly students and adults of color.”
Dua said Dexter’s apology was not sincere enough. He said she tried to explain herself for 10 minutes before apologizing for using the word.
School Committee member Manikka Bowman said she filed the motion to investigate the incident after hearing from the city’s high school students who said they were upset with Dexter’s apology.
Bowman said that over the past two years, students have appeared before the committee, shared videos, and highlighted their experiences with racial insensitivity that they said has largely gone ignored.
“I thought it was important to listen to the voices of our students,’’ Bowman said, noting that her aim is to gather all the facts.
When fellow committee member Patricia Nolan, who is white, attempted to make the case for Dexter, Bowman, who is black, called her “tone deaf.”
Nolan had read public statements from two African-American community leaders in Cambridge, including one who said Dexter should be supported and not vilified. But Bowman, sitting next to Nolan, criticized her for using black people to defend their white colleague.
Bowman also rejected criticism that her move to investigate Dexter’s use of the word is overblown.
“For me, this is not about Emily,’’ Bowman said. “We’ve been having a lot of conversations for the last two years on how our system is making [students] feel uncomfortable. . . . Someone reported it to me and that was a trigger for me.”
On Tuesday, Bowman’s measure passed, 6 to 1, with Dexter as the lone person who voted “present.”