Last Wednesday night, Boston College students and faculty gathered in Devlin to discuss a loaded term that is divisive throughout racial communities: the N-word.
The Black Student Forum hosted “The N-Word: A Forum Discussing Its Past, Present and Future,” which featured a panel including Professor Eric Williams, Cedrick Simmons, Cai Thomas, MCAS '16 and James Kale, LSOE '16. Facilitating the conversation was Laura-Kay Demezieux, LSOE ’17, who opened the discussion.
Williams, a professor in the BC African and African Diaspora Studies program and lecturer at Harvard University, opened the conversation by describing his problem with the word as rooted in its history. “It’s connected to history, and I would not want to remove it from that history,” said Williams, explaining that the word is so entrenched in slavery that it cannot be separated from those connotations. “It’s a term that has caused people to be killed, maimed, lynched, raped.”
Simmons, a second-year PhD student in the sociology program at BC, described his predominantly white high school in Rochester, NY, where students would often say that the N-word was just another word. “If it’s just another word, why are you so fascinated with using it?” wondered Simmons.
He went on to explain his perspective the white person's use of the N-word as “a weird sort of fetishism” in which people say it just to see the reaction. “There’s just so much power in the word, which is why people are obsessed with using it and seeing how you respond.” At his high school, Simmons was told he could not be upset at the use of the word, which he defined as “the ugliest word that one can use,” because he was not “really black” due to the way he presented himself.
“When I hear it said by others, it’s definitely something that doesn’t sit well with me,” said Thomas. “The kind of people coming to BC should know … that you shouldn’t be using the word.”
“Growing up, I never used that word until my latter years of high school,” said Kale, chair of the AHANA Leadership Council. “It’s in music, you can’t escape it. You go to a party, it’s there. Your friends use it, so then I started it use it because you just hear it everywhere you go.” He stressed that the context is different while acknowledging that even when one attempts to remove the word from race, certain negative connotations remain.
The panelists shared their first experiences with the word, such as when a young Kale said he wanted to be mayor when he grew up and was immediately shut down with, “We’re not going to have another [N-word] mayor in New York City.”
“Hearing that shattered me,” said Kale. “My dreams that day were shattered.”
As far as using the word goes, while the panelists agreed that it should be abolished, personal choice concerning usage varied from never saying the word to using it with careful thought as to why one is choosing to do so. None thought they were able to grant permission to people to use it, with Thomas saying, “No one gets knighted to say this word” and firmly rebuking the idea that having a black friend gives people a “get-out-of-jail-free” card.
When asked about the –er versus –a ending, Williams had a quick and succinct response: “Tomato, tom-ah-to … Same negation, same objectification.”
Kale, however, had a more complex view, referring to a line from Tupac: Resurrection that distinguishes –er as “a black man with a slavery chain around his neck” and –a as “a black man with a gold chain on his neck.”
Questioned about experiences at BC with the word, Simmons and Kale both shared stories about parties at which drunk attendants would use the word to the point that Simmons has stopped drinking socially and moved out of his apartment.
Thomas told the room about one night when she was walking through the Mods and an obviously intoxicated senior invited her inside for some grape soda while Kale said that now when he goes to parties and Kanye’s “All Day” comes on, he looks around and wonders, “They gonna say it?” When it is said, however, Kale joked about how he can’t get angry in response because, “Damn, I might lose my scholarship!”
The forum concluded with no formal decision on the matter, but, as Demezieux had said while introducing the panel, this discussion took place “not because we are wishing to find a solution … but to start a dialogue.”
Thomas summed it up, however, when she requested the crowd simply “respect the fact that someone has told you not to say it.”
All four identified with Simmons’s worry that concentrating on the N-word just serves as a distraction from institutional racism and the larger problems that groups such as Eradicate #BostonCollegeRacism, in which Simmons plays a core role, try to draw attention. Explained Simmons, “Policing the N-word is not the sword I want to die on.”
“It’s not just about how we see ourselves and how we see other people,” he concluded. “When our heads are in the clouds, we can’t see what’s in front of us.”