The N-word is hate speech, not free speech

Oct 28, 2020

CALGARY—The aroma of burning crosses dotting the landscape of this “multicultural” nation sure smells like the anti-Black racism most “leaders” are purported to stand against.

The proliferation of N-word usage, primarily among educators in publicly funded institutions is becoming a crisis of mental and emotional abuse that manifests itself in structural violence. Coined in the 1969 article “Violence, Peace, and Peace Research” by Norwegian sociologist Johan Galtung, “structural violence refers to the avoidable limitations that society places on groups of people that constrain them from meeting their basic needs and achieving the quality of life that would otherwise be possible.” That abuse is palpable but is usually normalized and dismissed: “Because these limitations are embedded in social structures that operate normatively, people tend to overlook them as nothing more than ordinary difficulties that they encounter in the course of their daily lives.” Being subjected to hate speech is a mere inconvenience.

That is the approach that 34 University of Ottawa professorsBloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet, and Quebec Premier François Legault took when they defended Verushka Lieutenant-Duval’s use of the N-word during her course, Art and Gender. According to the university’s student newspaper, The Fulcrum, Lieutenant-Duval “explained she believed uttering the slur was acceptable given the context of the lesson she was teaching.” Lieutenant-Duval has since apologized, but a cascade of white people expressing support for this speech is another way of saying that anyone against this language—especially the descendants of enslaved and colonized people to whom this language is directed—should just suck it up and STFU. If that’s not white supremacy perpetuating institutional violence against a traditionally oppressed people, I don’t know what is. Why don’t we just hold Klan rallies and cut out the pretence?

And what weak excuse did these “leaders” use to encourage the use of the N-word? Free speech and academic freedom. Never underestimate the ability of white people to make themselves victims of the consequences of their own racist acts. “The classroom (physical or virtual) cannot become a place free from the weights of history, ideas, and their representations. It is therefore inevitable that certain readings, certain concepts, even certain words will clash with susceptibilities,” read an English translation of a letter the aforementioned professors circled around the toilet bowl of Twitter.

Imagine being so ignorant and obtuse that you support the use of hate speech—at a publicly funded educational institution—as an educator whose job it is to teach others. Imagine.

Well, we don’t have to imagine, because here we are. Months into a Black Lives Matter movement that brought anti-Black racism to the forefront of our collective consciousness, we are at the crossroads of what should be an uncontroversial issue: white people using the N-word in any context is wrong. It’s debasing, oppressive, degrading, and most of all—racist. No one who supports this act will be on the right side of history and will be sharing bunk space in the same collective cultural memory as George Wallace.

This is not the University of Ottawa’s first offence, so their learning and growing and listening didn’t amount to much beyond talk. Last year, a Black student was carded, handcuffed, and detained for two hours by campus police, and then by Ottawa Police—whose record of racial discrimination against Black people isn’t exactly stellar. His crime? Skateboarding while Black. An investigation later found that the incident was racist: “Having considered all the evidence the Investigator finds that the Student was subject to discrimination because of his race,” said the report.

In other words, racist. But don’t think that the University of Ottawa is the only educational institution engaging in structural violence. French immersion school St. Michael in Calgary suspended a group of students for posting principal Lianne Anderson’s unknowingly recorded use of the N-word online. The Catholic School Board in Calgary is standing behind their school’s egregious and inhumane actions by stating, “the principal chose to use the word ‘strictly for educational purposes.’” It’s an epidemic. Thankfully, the students are better, as hundreds walked out of class to protest anti-Black racism at St. Michael as well as Bishop McNally High School.

The fact is that white people are creating their own N-word loophole and are backed by an institutional leadership who claims the N-word for educational purposes. Think of the differential of a group of white people in positions of power over the academic attainment of Black students who are susceptible to the school-to-prison pipeline—one where Black children are disciplined more often and more harshly than white children. As Robyn Maynard, author of Policing Black Lives, wrote in The Walrus, “Black youth face heightened surveillance and disciplinary measures at massively, disproportionately high rates compared to their white peers.”

The N-word is not just a word, it represents a hostility towards Black people that flows directly into, and underpins, policies that are directly attributed to attitudes about race where Black people are treated as sub-human. Free speech does not supersede human rights.

Erica Ifill is a co-host of the Bad+Bitchy podcast.