Black Slurs Through "White Teeth": Racism In The Classroom
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Politics and Activism

Black Slurs Through "White Teeth": Racism In The Classroom

Allowing white students to read the n-word aloud in class? In this case, the "n" means "no".

Black Slurs Through "White Teeth": Racism In The Classroom

I have been one of only two or three black kids in a class of thirty for most of my education. It never had much of an effect on me until I reached sophomore year of high school and my British literature teacher assigned my class Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. While reading the book at home, I soon found that race was a particularly large elephant that was dragging its behind across the pages. There were multiple passages in which the n-word was utilized to carry across a point about racism. This was all completely understandable to fifteen year old me. I actually quite enjoyed reading the book, and was not bothered by Smith’s use of such a slur, especially considering the fact that she is a Black woman discussing racism.

Then one day, my teacher decided it was time for us to read different passages aloud in class.

Her passage of choice?:

"But like all things, the business has two sides. Clean white teeth are not always wise, now are they? Par Exemplum: when I was in the Congo, the only way I could identify the nigger was by the whiteness of his teeth, if you see what I mean. Horrid business. Dark as buggery, it was. And they died because of it, you see? Poor bastards. " (7.113)*

Her reader of choice?

A white student.

My white teacher made no point of asking the white student to skip over the n-word. She allowed them — the white student — to read the slur aloud, and proceeded to thank them afterwards for their top notch reading abilities.

I would just like to point out one more time that the white student? They were white.

By many, this situation would be deemed appropriate and even necessary in order to educate a class about America’s history of racism and oppression. What many white people in education — students and teachers alike — do not understand, is that we have always had (and currently have) an education system that glorifies white people and the paths they have taken throughout history. In addition, it tends to erase Black history, which makes the instances where racial issues do come up all the more sensitive and crucial. When assigning literature that contains racially oppressive material, white teachers have to be aware of the fact that by having passages that contain the n-word read aloud uncensored, they are creating a hostile environment for their black students. White Teeth spans from the 1940s until 2000, and it was important to the story and the time period that Smith included the n-word. Smith had a very specific intent that was butchered by my teacher the minute she allowed a white student to say the word aloud during class.

I remember that day so clearly especially because a majority of the class turned to look at me and the one other Black student in the class. My parents always told me that one way to prevent myself from feeling embarrassed is to just “be myself and stop apologizing for it”; but for some reason, in that moment, I felt as though I had to apologize for being Black. All of those eyes were waiting for me to be the “typical Black person” — after class I was asked several times why I didn’t get “angry, like a normal Black person” when the student read aloud. How could I describe how unsafe I felt and the humiliation that grew inside me instead of anger to my white peers who could never fully grasp the situation?

Even teachers with all-white classes should think about how important introducing a slur with as much racial hatred and history as the n-word into their classrooms will affect their students. Just like music by Black artists that use the n-word, books that contain the same word are not a free fun pass for white people to use slurs. I have been called the n-word by so many white people that have tried to convince me afterward that they were “just having fun” or “joking around” or that “it is a term to use for friends”. I made sure to remind them that people don’t lynch, whip, or gun down their friends.

Language is a very powerful tool, one that should be used wisely. I absolutely do not believe that all of these thematically, historically, and culturally important books should be censored. I want people to read all of these slurs and read about all of these acts of terrorism, genocide, and enslavement and I want people to read them uncensored. I want teachers to assign these provoking books, to make their students learn and think and reflect. It is entirely possible for students to read these books at home, and for teachers to ask whatever discussion questions they had planned for class the next day without having passages containing slurs read aloud, especially not by white students.

However, what I also want, is for Black students to feel safe in their classrooms. I want them to feel empowered by their education, not attacked.

Now read this aloud:

“Uncensoring words is not worth the censoring of Black students’ emotional safety.”

*The passage came from a section in which a few of the children (all children of color) in the book are talking to an old white man they deliver food to. (C) 2000 Zadie Smith All rights reserved.

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