Our wonderful contributor, Zahra, dug up the Emily Bernard essay, “Teaching the N Word,” and it got us thinking…..
I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.
I’m all about current events. Every week I drill my freshman college students, “So what’s new in the news? What’s going on in the world?” This time I ask them about Fisher vs. University of Texas.
I might have stepped into class that morning particularly emotional—teachers are not entirely devoid of human emotion, right? I had just sat in my car listening to NPR, near tears that some young white girl would ever have the audacity to complain that she was not accepted to her college of choice because she is not African American. I was angry that this young, very young woman had so recklessly challenged Affirmative Action without so much as a hint of consideration for the reasons why the policies exist to begin with. The fact that Ms. Fisher so boldly failed to acknowledge the white privilege she inherited the day she took her first breath made me go hot with rage—a very James Baldwin-esque black rage (read Stranger in the Village).
So, back to my classroom. I asked my students, as we were studying Rogerian arguments, to adopt a stand on the issue, acknowledge values in opposition’s argument, then provide a solution-based conclusion. “They should let the white girl in,” one African American student offers. “Yes, they should just let her into the school she wants,” my one white student adds—this one white student against a backdrop of dark faces. The two students quote Fisher, that college admissions should be “solely based on [the students’] merit and if [the students] work hard for it.” Ah…so true. If only there wasn’t this whole thing about…oh say…I don’t know…Inequality! Income distribution, education, infrastructure, healthcare, crime, race! I found myself drilling all the students in the class, asking dozens of hypothetical questions concerning the eradication of Affirmative Action. I wanted all my black students, my Hispanic students, my one white student to understand that NO! they should not just let the white girl in! So much for my Rogerian argument.
Then I had to ask myself, where the hell is all this rage coming from and why am I taking it out on these kids, making this one white student’s cheeks redden with insecurity? Why am I pushing them so hard? What do I want from them? It is within the exploration of my insistence that I come to realize that I have just pulled a Bernard on these kids. An Emily Bernard.
In the essay, “Teaching the N-Word,” Emily Bernard questions whether offensive “epithets can ever really be reclaimed and reinvented.” Well, answering that question started out as her objective. Quite obviously she went off on an emotional and deeply personal tangent, exploring her own pathology concerning the word Nigger.
We enter Bernard’s essay during her office hours, where she is sitting with one of her students, a white male. Late in the meeting, she pulls down a copy of Randall Kennedy’s book, Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word,and to some degree, begins to shove the word Nigger down the kid’s throat. “He does not want to say it because he is white.” Yet, I’m not sure if I agree with Bernard’s hasty observation. I am Hispanic and I don’t want to say the word. Who says the word and who avoids it is not relegated to one particular group. That’s too great a generalization. The speaker of the word makes an individual choice to do so, no?
Bernard then says that her next lesson will be based on “Who Can Say Nigger.” The white student is still sitting in her office, incredibly uncomfortable, one would guess. While I also appreciate an uncomfortable discussion in class every once in a while, I could not, at this point in Bernard’s essay, understand what exactly was her investment in this project. What is she looking to get out of this?
I am taken by her honesty and her dishonesty as the essay progresses. The students—a solely white cohort—precociously ask their African American instructor how she feels when she hears the word Nigger. But she lies to them! “I don’t think I have a special place of pain inside of me that the word touches because I am black.” She then tells us, the reader—not her students—that she is lying. What is the point of this teachable moment if Bernard demands honesty that she refuses to reciprocate? The essay headed south for me after that.
Bernard takes us on an anachronistic journey through months and years. She shares the inside, mildly racist comments she, her white husband, her black peers, even her family has made. She continues to prod her students for the rest of the semester, even bothers them with emails after the course has ended in order to keep the Nigger-conversation flowing. Somehow she is still not convinced who has the right to say the word Nigger. Until finally—and I say that with exclamatory emphasis—she comes to a moment of lucidity while remembering a painful moment in her past. Didn’t we see that coming?
Bernard briefly recounts a story, no a secret, she’d held onto for what seems long enough to develop a pathology, a psychosis. “I was a teenager, maybe 16. I was standing on a sidewalk, trying to cross a busy street after school, to get to the mall to meet my friends. I happened to make eye contact with a white man in a car that was sort of stopped—traffic was heavy. Anyway, he just said it [Nigger!], kind of spit it up at me.”
Now let me clarify my position in this paper. It’s not that I think Emily Bernard should not have discussed this topic, one so precarious and booby-trapped, but her lesson, coupled with the essay she produced after the events took place, is clearly a process of cathartic exploration. Exploration of her past, present, and future through writing. Very Didion-esque. The problem is the one platform, the classroom. Bernard, just as I, has narcissistically abused her audience—the students. We both sought to superimpose our value system onto our pupils. In my defense, my tirade only lasted about 45 minutes. Bernard’s lasted an entire semester and one lengthy essay. To this point, a therapist could have helped her excavate something so obvious; that while she, a very light-skinned black woman (value that detail as you like) living in Vermont, married to a white man and teaching at a mostly, if not all white college, still carries the weight and cruelty of the word Nigger! impregnated deeply within her psyche. Through the cathartic process of discussion and ultimately documenting, perhaps now Bernard understands why her students and I do not wish to repeat the word—a word that so continuously pokes at the hot embers of black pain.
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Maria V. Luna – Your students are lucky to have you.