One of the most eye-opening experiences about teaching college students in Houston is the international feel of the classroom.
In my English classes, I have students from countries in Africa (too many to name) Iran, India, South Korea, China, Haiti, Mexico, Venezuela, Peru and Colombia.
These students are from these countries. First generation. They know nothing about certain things.
So when a Mexican student said the word “nigger” in class the other day, it was a teachable moment I knew was coming.
Now, before you get up in arms, Dear Reader, I want you to know the context. It wasn’t in an effort to name call or to demean. It wasn’t said while saying the lyrics of the latest rap song. It wasn’t even said as a term of endearment as some have decided to use this term.
This was part of an assignment – to read essays in their textbook to find out how to write a certain type of essay. They were to do a presentation on how they think a definition essay should be written.
One of the essays in the chapter deals with the N-word. While my other American(ized) students decided to skip that word and/or that essay, this student didn’t. For him, nigger is a word like cat, or dog, or cup. It means something. There was a definition in a dictionary but it didn’t mean more than the letters it took to write it.
That word was even difficult for him to pronounce. With its double g next to the r, it took so much energy to try to say correctly. N-eh-gg-rrr. Ne-gr. Nah-ah-gar.
Hearing him say it, even with an accent, during the presentation made my skin crawl. I gasped as did some of my other students. The international students looked confused. What did this word mean? Why were some students in shock while others weren’t?
Then came the teachable moment. I looked at my international students and explained that that word, although part of the English language, means something very dark and sinister. We talked about the origins of the word, Jim Crow, and how, at one point of American history, I wouldn’t have been allowed to be their teacher.
Then we talked about the word now. The meaning could not be separated from the connotation, they were one in the same. Some use it in a positive context but it doesn’t erase what is was and still is to some people.
This moment here, this is why English and liberal arts are important. Listen, I can go into this whole tirade about why a liberal arts education is important. I can go into how classrooms need to be protected because that is one of the last forms of a pure free speech. I can politic this into next Tuesday.
But all of that doesn’t matter.
Once upon a time there was this word. And it was hurtful. And the people who said it were hurtful. And the people who they said it too, bad things happened to them for a very long time. But now that word is a teachable moment for the next generation, the next flocks of immigrants who want to make this their home country. They learned from something that still infects society and understood that a word, one single word, is powerful. By speaking it, they aren’t just saying dog, cat, or cup, they are evoking the past, something they are not interested in repeating. What they are interested in is learning from it and moving forward.
I can’t wait to see what they will do with these essays.