Crossing the Line: Derogatory Slurs in the Classroom
By: Apple Diamond and Liam Mackenzie
Above graphic: Liam Mackenzie
In the incredibly progressive environment of our school, in efforts to pursue meaningful discussion, understanding and leaning into discomfort in English classes is often a goal in the classroom. However, instances when students feel unsafe due to bigoted language featured in texts beg an important question: Where do we draw the line between feeling uncomfortable and feeling unsafe—and should that line be drawn at different places for different people?
The challenge of distinguishing feeling unsafe versus uncomfortable is one that comes with interacting with texts that feature offensive language.
“A safe space is different from a comfortable space,” said Upper School English Teacher Jonathan Wang.
“I do recognize that things come up in literature that are so closely related to the experiences that we have, and we have to as [teachers] in the room to be aware of that…We have to recognize that even though the majority feels discomfort, somebody might feel that is a moment of a lack of safety,” said English Teacher and Assistant Head of Upper School, Allison Bishop.
With the introduction of The Laramie Project to the tenth grade English curriculum, discussions of how to tackle the usage of homophobic and racial slurs in an educational setting quickly spread through the sophomore grade. The play, published in 2001, includes interviews with community members of the small Wyoming town of Laramie that at points display abject homophobia.
English Teacher Celeste Tramontin believes that the book has “been instrumental in opening up dialogue about homophobia in its many forms, and if we are going to examine homophobia, that will bring with it some derogatory terms.”
While the teaching of this play did not strike up issues with the student body, the decision to act out the play, the derogatory f-word included, did. After receiving feedback from multiple students, and in an attempt to reestablish conflict free space, the English department retracted the plan to perform the Laramie Project.
“I think that words have a lot more power than a lot of people think,” said M Kenig (’22) in response to the plan to perform The Laramie Project. “I honestly would never feel comfortable saying a word that would really affect someone else and I don’t really feel comfortable having those words said around me. Although the words may be written in the book it’s something that might offend someone and that’s not something we should be condoning.”
In addition, the introduction of The Laramie Project prompted students to consider how Packer teaches other books that feature slurs within the English curriculum, both in the Middle and Upper Schools. These books include To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee and If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin. These novels sparked questions of whether the race of an author should affect how one treats the language within the texts.
Navigating derogatory language in the classroom, especially in a predominantly white institution, is a challenge for students and teachers alike. Sara Winnick, a Middle School English Teacher, grapples with how to teach students to interact with texts that include the n-word as a white individual herself.
Ms. Winnick finds it important to center the voices of the people impacted by the slurs in her teaching.“I have a lesson that presents some common facts and beliefs about the n-word, using videos and articles written by black people. I like to get as many black voices in the room to present the different sides and layers of the topic,” she explained.
Many think it imperative that, when interacting with racist and homophobic language, students grasp the historical and cultural context. In regards to The Laramie Project, Mr. Wang explained that the tenth grade English team found it important “to talk about the context of when that word was used and how the use of that word in that moment could then help us understand how and why Matthew Shepherd got murdered.”
The discussion of how we engage with derogatory slurs and their importance to maintaining the integrity of literature is essential, but when in the classroom we must investigate beyond that. Ultimately, the true reason why this matters lies in the fact that we are living in a world that is informed by bigoted structures. We must study and acknowledge why and when derogatory terms are used in literature, and then attempt to ask the broader question of why these words are important, keeping in mind the lines that each of us may draw in terms of feeling unsafe. As Ms. Winnick stated, the slurs “speak to such broad inequalities and injustice beyond them.”