I have been thinking a lot about the case of the GA State University freshman and her use of the N-word that brought immediate and public shaming and got her suspended from her soccer team and caused her to withdraw from school. Obviously context is everything and seeing the fuller context in public media is difficult as its mostly the overview that’s presented. This link is the best I could find that describes her post.
I take it as a given that people who are not people of color know not to use the N-word. I came to realize that it is actually not a given for children and must be taught and re-taught with each generation. Race, structural racism and racial history are not taught explicitly. White children are taught to be “color-blind” because “nice people don’t talk about race.” We have immigrant children (and families) coming to a new country who don’t know the nuances and the history and yet hear the N-word all over popular music. All of this causes confusion and most schools (and families who are not people of color) don’t have direct conversations about it.
Because context and nuance matter, the exuberant cluelessness of this freshman’s post feels very different than the use of the N-word as an epithet or insult, deliberate, hateful uses. Don’t get me wrong — non-people of color using the N-word is always wrong and people always need to be taken to task. The issue I am having is with the immediate and public take down. Perhaps there is another path.
Debby Irving, in her brilliant book, Waking Up White writes: “The principles of restorative justice resonate deeply… because they embody the idea that that collective well-being is inseparable from individual well-being. Using missteps as moments to learn and become stronger empowers individuals and communities to hold one another accountable through strengthening relationships, not by punitive, silencing divisiveness.”
What if someone had reached out to this girl and said, “Hey, you can’t use that word and here’s why.” What if a restorative justice approach had been used and the girl — and the larger community — had a conversation on why this word is still taboo despite wide spread use within the Black community and popular music? The incident could have been a community-wide teachable moment but I’m afraid now it just furthers misunderstanding, judgement and fear. And the culture of immediate public take down currently in its hey day to me seems like an incredibly destructive trend. Calling for immediate expulsion doesn’t bring healing. Talking across differences and mistakes is the only way to bring healing and move forward together.