“White Trash” is an insult I just can’t stomach, but then Dorothy Allison reclaimed it by naming a collection of short stories Trash and my linguistic sensibilities begin to wobble. When is White Trash being used as an insult to poor white folks, and when is it being used as an insult to mainstream society? How will I know the difference? Usually I do know the difference – it depends on the speaker’s intonation, their facial expression, their body language, and feelings of their own superiority (or inferiority as it may be). Want to know what I’ve done in the past when folks have said it in my company? I make a simple statement, “I don’t know what you mean.” “Oh, you know what I mean,” a speaker might say in response. “No, what do you mean exactly?”
But no one wants to articulate their classist and racist beliefs explicitly…so I smile and we move on, both of us well aware of what just occurred.
Words are re-voiced constantly, always carrying their legacies with each use, but then used with a particular intention of the speaker. Where’s the trouble? When the speaker and the listener have different ideas of what that word means (or, perhaps when they absolutely agree on the meaning of the word but disagree with how it’s being used).
Another word I’ve never been able to stomach is the “N” word (see? I can’t even actually write the word…). I’ve seen fifth grade African America boys shut down and punished because of their use of the word in a White teacher’s classroom – and I’ve seen White folks use the word in the most despicable ways.
Usually schools – including universities where a focus might be multiculturalism or diversity or cultural sensitivity – simply want to silence such language. Does silencing language take away the pain of words used for such insult?
I say no – and with students as young as first grade and as advanced as graduate school I’ve thrown a word on the chalkboard (yes, on an old-fashioned chalkboard, one of the most useful technologies still in responsive teaching!) and opened up a conversation about it. Some of those words have included:
Learning Disabled or “LD”
I have never had the spontaneous opportunity nor the guts to plan ahead to write the “N” word on the board and open up the possibility for the beauty that can come from such trouble. But this amazing middle school teacher did.
From Teaching Tolerance:
The Power of the N Word
Submitted by Carrie Craven on May 26, 2011
“Ms. Craven, we can put ‘nigga?’”
I pause. Images of earnest sitting-in-a-circle chats in college flash through my brain:
- A classmate from Kentucky explaining how she will never say that word, even in academic circles, because, being white, she will never be able to fully grasp its implications;
- Another black classmate asserting that the word has been reclaimed, and that when black people use it, the poison of the original use gets diluted.
Meanwhile, my 13- and 14-year-olds look at me from a class that is mostly black. They generally have heard only that the n-word is either “cursing” or “ghetto.”
“I’m not sure how I feel about that,” I say honestly. “What do you think?”
This week my kids are working on their understanding of parts of speech by making teenage dictionaries. Slang and text-speak are all allowed, although cursing and offensive language are not. Of course, I’m walking a dangerous line. If kids were good at knowing what words are appropriate for a school setting, we’d all have one less thing to teach. I, for one, would have far fewer detentions.
But I got into this project knowing these things would come up. I decided I was okay with that. My real, true, not-in-the-Louisiana-Comprehensive-Curriculum goal for this project was to involve my students in a discussion about the power of words. And here we were. Discussion begun.
“It’s just what we call each other,” said Devonta, “It’s like, ‘Wassup, son.’”
Jared replies, “Nah man, that’s what white people called us in the slave days.”
I asked them if the word meant the same thing for everybody—if it means the same thing from everybody. Would they would be okay if I used this word, for example. (The response was mixed.)
Quite understandably, kids who saw the word primarily as a relic of its “-er” origin decided they should not include the word. Those who saw it simply as a way friends greet each other concluded that it was okay. After all, as Sha’de put it, “This is supposed to be a dictionary of how we talk.”
My kids don’t use four-letter words often in my classes anymore. A strict policy of an immediate detention has curbed the use of your standard Showtime expletives. But I still don’t feel satisfied. I’m not satisfied because I think what this has taught my kids is that swearing in Ms. Craven’s class will get you a detention. What I want to teach my kids is that swearing and using offensive language makes you appear less intelligent, less empathetic and even cruel.
This project is helping. These discussions are helping. My students are exploring the history and implications andpower of specific words. They’re starting to understand that every time you use a word it essentially has two meanings: (1.) What you meant by it, and (2.) What it means to the person who hears it.
I still have a ways to go. My classroom is far from some utopia of all-inclusive and tolerant language. But this is a start, this honest talk about words we know can offend. And I think it’s a pretty good one.
Craven is a middle school English teacher in Louisiana.