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Opinion | Randall Kennedy

When ‘the n-word’ meets public education

Emily Dexter, who is white, used the full version of the n-word as part of a class discussion, triggering a fiery debate in a city that prides itself on embracing diversity. Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

News reports suggest that an effort by the Cambridge School Committee to display racial enlightenment has turned into a racially discriminatory act of political repression. In January, a teacher at the Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School, Kevin Dua, sponsored a research project titled “RECLAIMING: Nigger v. Cracker: Educating Racial Context In/for Cambridge.” The project sought to explore the history and effects of racial slurs.

Dua invited members of the committee to attend a discussion of the project in part because he wanted them to address an issue that surfaced when the students pursued their research: School computers blocked access to websites containing the n-word and other racial and ethnic slurs. One member of the committee who attended, Emily Dexter, listened to the presentation, participated, and volunteered to assist the students in negotiating the problem of the computer filters. So far so good. The situation presented a positive instance of public high school education: an exercise aimed at sparking curiosity about an important, albeit controversial, subject in the context of an academic setting in which students, instructors, and others could engage, hopefully, in a memorable, fascinating, edifying exchange of information and views.


But then things went awry.

Apparently some students were upset that Dexter had pronounced the n-word in full. When Dexter heard that her remarks had created hurt feelings, she returned to the class to explain herself and apologize, actions that appear to have inflamed the anger. According to news reports, Dua and outraged students found Dexter’s apology to be “insincere” and inadequate. Subsequent disquiet grew to such an extent that the committee authorized an “investigation” into Dexter’s conduct, though, just recently, apparently pursuant to some prodding from Dexter’s lawyer, the proceeding is now being referred to as a “fact-finding review.”

No, this is not parody. This is, alas, farce.


No one claims that Dexter “used” the n-word to demean, harass, or terrorize — the malevolent
purposes that have made the word a justly hated slur. So what is the complaint ? The complaint is that she enunciated what The Boston Globe terms “the full version of the n-word.” But so, too, did Dua. Why was he not excoriated? Why was he not investigated?

One explanation: Dua is black while Dexter is white. To some observers, Dexter’s race makes all the difference. Here, as in similar episodes around the country, a strong sentiment is congealing around the proposition that while it may sometimes be bad for African-Americans to utter the n-word in its full version, doing so on the part of a white person is always bad and unacceptable no matter what, even if the person is engaged in an anti-racist educational mission. That is why a professor at Augsburg University in Minneapolis was recently censured even though he repeated the slur in the context of examining writings by James Baldwin in which the term appears. In neither that case nor Dexter’s did the putative offender “use” the n-word in the sense that is rightly viewed as revolting. Their true sin was to utter the word while white.

If the thinking propounded by those who want to punish Dexter takes hold, an African-American author like me will be permitted to write a book such as “Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word” — a book I published in 2002 — while a white author will be prohibited from doing so on pain of ostracism. Such a regime offers nothing good to the ongoing, much-needed battle against anti-black racism or the ongoing, ever-urgent struggle to educate ourselves. To the contrary, such a regime is itself wrongly repressive and invidiously discriminatory. At issue with the committee, moreover, is the conduct of a governmental agency that is veering toward illegality if it has not already crossed that line. After all, the committee has unjustifiably treated a person — one of its own members — adversely in part because of her race.


The Cambridge imbroglio highlights a ridiculous linguistic mysticism that insists that a meaningful moral distinction rests upon a speaker deploying the n-word or some other euphemism in the course of discussing slurs in contrast to pronouncing the word in full. It also highlights other problems such as carrying on a discussion about racism as if Cambridge was populated only by “blacks” and “whites.” What about people who do not identify themselves as either black or white? Where are they placed with respect to the racial boundaries that some are attempting to impose on linguistic usage? Often they are placed nowhere, because they are rendered invisible by racial narcissists who pride themselves on being “woke.”

If the n-word is being used in a racist fashion, the person who does so ought to be criticized whatever his or her race. But no one’s race ought to be seen as an irrebuttable presumption that dooms her even though any reasonable interpretation of her conduct renders implausible any complaint that she was indulging in racist derogation. The Cambridge School Committee ought to drop its campaign against Dexter, acknowledge its error, and return its attention to improving the education of students.


Randall Kennedy is a professor at Harvard Law School.