Feb 19, 2012

Teacher sues CPS after suspension for slur during ‘teachable moment’

My friend, Veronica, posted this story in the Chicago Sun-Times on my Facebook timeline recently and I felt it necessary to share. Go ahead and take a quick read.

Teacher sues CPS after suspension for slur during ‘teachable moment’  

I know I did a post on (potential) racism, but I think this brings up some interesting issues surrounding race and the n-word. I have my response and I've called in a favor from my good friend, Gage Norris, as a second opinion to complete the forum. I'd like to hear what you think too. Leave your thoughts in the comment section under the post. FYI, if you leave a comment on Facebook or somewhere else I'll put it in the comment section on the post, so save me the time and effort!


Rick - As a teacher, and a white teacher in a minority environment, that he should have been more aware of how his use of the n-word would play out. The word is so emotionally charged that even though I think the principal's reaction was incorrect, it has to be expected. This reminds me of a debate that took place in one of my U of C classes. A white student used the n-word while quoting and discussing a specific assigned reading passage and I remember there was such an uproar by several black students in the class the original point (which was valid) was lost in the backlash. Obviously there is a double standard insofar as who is saying the word, but I think there is also space for other races to use the term "n-word" during teachable moments or in academic in discussion. Context is key. You can always refer to the word without using it and still make valid points and take advantage of teachable moments. 

GageAs I write this, I’m trying to figure out if this is a case of a decent guy trying to do the right thing but going about it the wrong way – or if it’s case of a guy with a ton of white guilt that’s turned into white anger. Brown has a point when he says we can’t address issues of race if we don’t talk about them. But I don’t think it’s necessary to use the n-word explicitly. At this point I think it’s safe to assume people will know what you mean if you abbreviate out of a sense of respect for a word that carries centuries of racism – by white people against black people, and for a period of time, by white people against anyone who wasn’t white. If our goal is to phase this word out as much as possible (not ignore it, just limit its usage), continuing to use it explicitly can’t be moving us in the right direction. Ultimately, I feel like Brown deserves this suspension. Based on the discrepancies between his account and that of his principal, it’s clear at least one of them is lying about what really went down in that classroom. And my gut tells me it wasn’t a bunch of black students and a principal ganging up on a white teacher – rather, a white guy who let himself get out of line in a professional setting. 


  1. A long time ago, I had the same rhetorical question that Brown offers up as a quote: how can black people use this word with each other but white people can’t utter it at all?

    And then I learned history.

    This isn’t the place to write about language as both a vehicle for racism and as a way to oppose it, but if you think about Brown’s question with even a basic knowledge of American history, it’s easy to see why it’s pretty ignorant – especially for a teacher.

    [And speaking of teachers’ responsibilities, I have to point out that, based on the written accounts cited in the article, the principal is a horrible speller.]

  2. I have to agree with Gage here. Context is the main component and the predominant historical context of the word involves an exchange between whites and blacks where whites were attempting to oppress, demean, and disparage. And, historically speaking, one could make the argument that blacks using the word among each other was with a completely opposite intent like the playing of the dozens, where blacks would snap on each other to thicken each other's skin so they could endure a world that hated them. I don't know Brown from a can of paint but it seems that as a teacher he would at least understand that despite his progressive past, trust, in the end, is what gives a person license to go to certain places with people. And trust isn't built solely on a social resume. He can say that he was named after Abraham Lincoln but then I could reply with, well, "Lincoln said he would have kept my black ass in slavery if that's what it would have taken to preserve the union." I think a correction was warranted in this matter. But I don't know to what degree. If I was the principal I'd want to know why Brown felt comfortable taking such a personal stance with the students? Sense of privilege? A genuine trust and intimacy between him and his pupils? Blind ignorance? Brain fart? Did he not understand that, as a black American, hearing that word come from an unknown or barely known white person can raise some seriously intense emotions? Or maybe I'm wrong. Maybe that's not the case with today's sixth grader.

  3. I feel like I should have said "dated social resume" as a lot of his race credentials where regarding the past and didn't address any positive race-related interactions he had with his current students.