Why I Believe White Professors Using The N-Word Out Of ‘Academic Interest’ Is Often An Excuse To Enjoy Using The Word
"My Black students have told me that some white professors and students quote the N-word for no other reason than to experience the pleasures of using it while white."
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Ordinarily, as someone devoted to the work of “radical questioning” myself, I would lock arms with anyone struggling against the curtailing of thought and speech — with the notable exception of racists. Not merely because their armpits tend to be sweaty, but because racists are being disingenuous when they claim that their inability to publicly utter the worst anti-Black slur without consequence puts blinders on public discourse, and stifles creativity and philosophical inquiry. It doesn’t. They just enjoy using the word. I’m sure Prof. Laurie Sheck is the least racist person in the world. And yet, her presenting the investigation into her after using the N-word in class as a warning against “censorship” and the “abuse of power” does not inspire me to put marker to placard and rush out to our collective defense.
Since the Fall of 2016 I’ve been less a scholar than a pillow upon which students of color scream out their frustration with white professors, white students, white confederate flag t-shirt wearing cafeteria staff, white campus safety officers, white police and white community members. I’ve been told that students in MAGA hats have harassed the “POC table” in the cafeteria. That campus police routinely raid the dorms of students of color. That fraternities hold anti-Black parties. That their protests against police killings are targeted by the well-funded Young Americans for Freedom. That they are routinely sent anonymous messages with racist slurs via Yik Yak. Even Black professors have warned me that it is better to drive with a college-branded cap on your dashboard to signal to the police that you are one of the “good ones.” The American university is not — despite what the right would have the public believe — bastions of liberalism where Black students are free to rant and rave before a sheepish white conservative minority. The college campus is, and has been for some time, a central site of racist violence, harassment, discrimination and intimidation.
In her op-ed for USA Today, Prof. Sheck writes of “... the necessity that universities be preserved as places of active, even volatile, thinking — where ideas about which there is genuine urgency and no consensus are welcomed and protected.” Preserved? Alabama governor George Wallace stood in the doorway of the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa to symbolically and materially prevent the bodies, to say nothing of the ideas, of Black students being welcomed on campus. I, myself, was welcomed to grad school with the news that a noose was hung on a Black professor’s door. It is only possible to imagine that the university has such spaces of freedom available to preserve if the constant background hum of Black unfreedom on campus is ignored. It’s these erasures that make possible the mythologizing of history and leads even well-intentioned people to misread the lasting influences of racism.
This is why, as comedian Bill Burr notes, Babe Ruth is considered the greatest baseball player of all-time. The history of segregation and the cordoning off of non-white players (or women like Jackie Mitchell), is not recalled with the same speed as myth. It is for this reason as well that well-respected scholars still speak of “classical Athenian democracy.” Any place or time can appear free when a blanket is thrown over the enslaved. Perhaps it was this very sanitizing of majority-white spaces that was responsible for Prof. Sheck’s belief that her use of the N-word would be non-injurious. Perhaps she has not noticed the bodies strewn about along her “unflinching” quest for academic truth.
Prof. Sheck sees her being investigated as an abuse of power. My Black students have told me that some white professors and students quote the N-word for no other reason than to experience the pleasures of using it while white. The plausible deniability of “Academic interest” being always at the ready in case they are confronted. For white academics the N-word is provocative, it is daring, exciting and it is a claiming of the privilege that whites outside of academia are generally seen as not to enjoy. White professors use the N-word at the expense of Black students who are often in majority-white classrooms and who are, at its utterance, forced to languish in a humiliating hyper-visibility, or object to it and be marked as overly-sensitive. Blacks must sit quietly and endure the N-word. They must be abused and then taught that it is lack of acquaintance with academia that has led them to feel abused. But Black students know the weight in the air when the word is spoken. They know of its denuding power. And they know that there is nothing so philosophically indispensable in “n****r” that is irretrievably lost when it is not spoken. Certainly nothing that outweighs what they have lost.
Black people’s presence, bodies, courses and ideas face censorship on campus everyday. I’d welcome Prof. Sheck to the club, but I doubt she’d come to stay.
Yannick Marshall is assistant professor of Africana Studies at Knox College where he teaches courses on anti-blackness, colonialism and policing. He has published articles, poetry and short fiction on race, radical thought and politics.