In January, I attended a guest lecture on civilian harm reduction during armed conflict. At the time, I was enrolled in a course studying transitional justice and was quite interested in the lecturer’s research interests. Attending this lecture, however, was one of the most uncomfortable and alienating experiences of my undergraduate career.
This is because, as part of their talk, the lecturer used three racial epithets (or ‘slurs’), terms used specifically to marginalize groups of peoples. Worse yet, the lecturer did not identify with any of the three communities these epithets are traditionally used to marginalize.
I do not believe the lecturer’s use of these words was consciously malicious; the lecturer was attempting to explain how language can be used to dehumanize civilians in conflict. Still, even in making critical reference to these terms, the guest lecturer harmed the racialized students in attendance. I was shocked by their use of the words, as were other attendees. During the question period, I raised my hand and asked how relevant those hurtful terms were to imparting their knowledge, especially when the lecturer could have used easily identifiable euphemisms instead. The lecturer seemed confused; they argued that they used the terms to paint a picture and for educational purposes. Before I left the classroom, I kindly asked the lecturer to critically reflect upon their use of those terms; I asked them to consider whether, when talking about the history of racism, it’s necessary for instructors to alienate racialized students, regardless of what their intent may be.
What the attendees and I experienced in this lecture was not an isolated incident. Yesterday’s episode of Perspectives on Campus (POC), as well as the experiences shared on Instagram accounts such as @uwominoritystory and @stolenbysmith, made it clear to me that the ease with which lecturers use racial epithets is a widespread and systemic issue. We all know the unwritten rule: don’t use a term traditionally used to target a community of people unless you are a member of that community. Far too often, educators feel exempt from this rule, believing that their use of these slurs serves an ‘educational purpose.’ I’m not writing this article to explain why folks shouldn’t use racial epithets that they have no right to reclaim; that should be a given. I’m writing this article to expand on the conversation I had with Razan yesterday on POC, because we don’t feel as though we adequately explained an important truth: instructors who use racial epithets deviate from what they were hired to do — educate.
My argument is simple: if you are an educator, you should not use racial epithets in your classroom. Ever. Racial epithets cannot ever serve educational purposes. In fact, they produce inequities in educational outcomes between targeted and untargeted students groups, and make the campus less welcoming for targeted groups. In the context of the classroom, all that racial epithets do is make learning spaces inaccessible to students from targeted groups.
To understand why racial epithets have no place in a lecture, seminar, or other educational setting, it’s important to recognize the immense power that language and racial slurs have. Consider the n-word. This pejorative has been used since the 18th century to insult, offend, and harm Black folks. The term has an undeniable connection to white supremacy, colonialism, and slavery. The impacts of this and other racial epithets have intergenerational and vicarious consequences, meaning that such terms not only harm the individual the term is being used against, but they also have the potential to harm the community as a whole. In a 2018 survey of 347 undergraduate students, 88 percent of whom identified as Black and 7 percent of whom identified as multi-racial, 76 percent believed it was never acceptable for a non-Black person to use the n-word in any situation1. With respect to n-word derivatives, students commented that derivatives are a “distinction without a difference,” and should similarly not be used2. Because of the harm such a word can cause and the discomfort Black students have with non-Black folk using the term, not using the word or its derivatives is the empathetic choice due to the discomfort it incites in targeted folk. In addition, alongside instruction quality, autonomy support, and structure, teacher-student relations are an important variable in determining a student’s propensity to succeed academically3. Given the importance of interpersonal teacher-student relations in determining the efficacy of learning and the discomfort Black students identify with folks using the n-word, when educators use the word or its derivatives for ‘educational purposes’, what they are really doing is attempting to teach non-Black students about a given topic at the expense of Black students’ education, comfort, wellness, and optimal learning environment. Applying this conclusion more broadly, it’s evident that racial epithets cannot serve educational purposes because they disproportionately harm particular groups of students and prioritize the learning experience of some students over others.
Educators’ use of racial epithets is also problematic because of the long-term implications it has on a student’s ability to learn in that classroom and at their institution. A 2011 study in the Review of Educational Research found a strong correlation between teacher-student relationships and a student’s engagement and achievement in school, where positive student-teacher relationships led to increased long-term student engagement and achievement, and negative student-teacher relationships had a harmful effect on long-term student engagement and achievement 4. Another study found that the interpersonal skills of educators are equally if not more important than their knowledge of the subject matter5. While there is still a need for more research on the effects that use of racial slurs by educators has on student performance in the university context, I would argue that it is safe to assume that teacher-student relationships are tarnished when educators use slurs in the classroom. Therefore, not only do the use of racial slurs in the classroom create shorter-term discomfort in targeted student groups, they also impact affected students’ ability to learn and to excel in the long-term. In this sense, the use of racial slurs, regardless of intent, makes it unnecessarily difficult for affected students to benefit from the classroom environment and attain a quality post-secondary education.
The use of racial epithets in the context of a post-secondary learning space by educators should best be avoided because it produces inequitable learning outcomes for students and makes the classroom and campus inaccessible for already-underrepresented students. I would like to stress that the use of racial epithets by educators in a classroom setting is not a matter of free speech or expression; it is a matter of empathy and professionalism. While there are no formalized rules barring an educator from using a harmful epithet, my argument is that educators should understand such terms’ negative impacts and know to refrain from using these words. Should they still choose to use them, however, educators cannot expect immunity from the repercussions of their actions. Racialized students, their allies on campus, and society as a whole will not allow such use to continue with impunity.
The author would like to thank Razan Mohamed, Sara Tamjidi, Blessing Brown, Alyssa (Asinawe-Asimook) Mifflin, Karyssa Chan, and Xiaochuan (Shall) Yu for sharing their voices and stories as part of ‘Perspectives on Campus’.
1 Wyman King et al., “Who Has the ‘Right’ to Use the N-Word? A Survey of Attitudes about the Acceptability of Using the N-Word and Its Derivatives,” International Journal of Society, Culture & Language 6, no. 2 (2018): 54-55.
2 King et al., “Who Has the ‘Right’ to Use the N-Word?,” 56.
3 Debora L. Roorda et al., “The Influence of Affective Teacher–Student Relationships on Students’ School Engagement and Achievement,” Review of Educational Research 81, no. 4 (2011): 520, https://doi.org/10.3102/0034654311421793.
4 Roorda et al., “The Influence of Affective Teacher–Student Relationships,” 515.
5 Josef M. Broder and Jeffrey H. Dorfman, “Determinants of Teaching Quality: What's Important to Students?,” Research in Higher Education 35, no. 2 (1994): 246, https://doi.org/10.1007/bf02496703.
Broder, Josef M., and Jeffrey H. Dorfman. “Determinants of Teaching Quality: What's Important to Students?” Research in Higher Education 35, no. 2 (1994): 235–49. https://doi.org/10.1007/bf02496703.
King, Wyman, Richard C. Emanuel, Xavier Brown, Niroby Dingle, Vertis Lucas, Anissa Perkins, Ayzia Turner, Destinee Whittington, and Qwa'dryna Witherspoon. “Who Has the ‘Right’ to Use the N-Word? A Survey of Attitudes about the Acceptability of Using the N-Word and Its Derivatives.” International Journal of Society, Culture & Language 6, no. 2 (2018): 47–58.
Roorda, Debora L., Helma M. Y. Koomen, Jantine L. Spilt, and Frans J. Oort. “The Influence of Affective Teacher–Student Relationships on Students’ School Engagement and Achievement.” Review of Educational Research 81, no. 4 (2011): 493–529. https://doi.org/10.3102/0034654311421793.