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Did My Professor Really Have To Keep Saying It?

"Is it ever OK for a non-black professor to use the n-word in an academic context?"

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The 14th time my white professor said the word "nigger," I cringed. The uncomfortable tension I internalized over his use of the word in an academic arena sat in the margins of my notebook. I tallied the number of times he used it in my notebook as we discussed, Randall Kennedy's book, Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word. He repeated the title of the book as if he felt a sweet taste in his mouth after he uttered each syllable. I didn't know whether to break the silence or actively ignore it, but to pretend it wasn't a thing would be just impossible. There it was, just sitting there. It's something that I've come to grips with as a student as I travel through the various worlds of academia. I'm not the first to raise a sense of anxiety with white professors using the word "nigger" in an academic venue, and I won't be the last, but in a country where Donald J. Trump is the President, I think it's a conversation we need to start having again. Is it ever OK for a non-black professor to use the word "nigger" in an academic context?

If you were wondering how I handled the situation, I have a spoiler alert for you. I didn't. I did what I thought I couldn't do previously and I sat in class without making a fuss over it. I had heard from one of the three other black students in my class of 40 that she had already attempted to remedy the situation with this particular professor by bringing to his attention in a closed door, one-on-one conversation. He shut her down. He didn't see an issue with it even if black students had one. At the very least, I would've hoped that my professor would have had a heightened sense of awareness in today's sociopolitical climate. We don't have someone that we believe to be racist running our country. We have someone who is an unabashed bigot running our country, who just happens to live not 20 minutes away from where our class is held.

I do have an issue with him saying it even if I didn't vocalize it in the classroom, but I was afraid of risking my favor with this particular professor during a semester where I so desperately needed to bring my GPA up. However, no student should ever have to balance making a point over feeling uncomfortable with the use of a racial epithet and their academic success. In reality, the professor holds rank in his kingdom that we call that classroom, but with that being said, did he really have to use the word 14 times? Nearly once every five minutes, I have to experience the violence of the word "nigger" from white lips crashing against my ears. Some might say I'm sensitive, and that may be true. Some may argue that in order to properly speak about the book, he has to use it, and that may be true as well. Above all else, one thing holds true: No matter the occupation, the use of the word "nigger" in a professional or academic environment from white people is unacceptable in my book. There is no other occupation where it would be acceptable to say this word if you are white. Despite feeling this way, my financial aid, scholarships, loans and part-time wages pay nearly $60,000 to a predominantly white institution that gives him the power to say this word without repercussion, so am I to blame? 

Part of me wants to raise hell over this. Part of me is telling me that I'm overreacting. Part of me is telling me that this is simply preparation for the "real world." All of me is telling me that all three of the emotions that I'm feeling right now are valid. I don't know whether or not these emotions will go away, but I do know one thing for sure. I will not be the last student to write about this in Trump's America if we don't tackle this issue head-on right here, right now.

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I am a Kanye West fanatic who grew up on Fruity Pebbles and Fresh Prince of Bel-Air re-runs in a small town called North Plainfield, New Jersey. I grew up in a household of three, my mom, brother and me. My Mom and brother were both English majors, so I guess you could say I was born to write. Today, I go to school in Washington, D.C., where I study Journalism and Business & Entertainment. My dream is to make my deceased father proud in whatever I do. Oh! One more thing! I have the biggest crush on the singer, Tinashe, so if you’re reading this Tinashe, hit me up on Twitter, @ryanmshepard That’s all you need to know about me.
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