In this blog post, we want to signal boost a podcast episode where Professor Koritha Mitchell (Ohio State University) talks about her approach to racial and other identity-based slurs that appear in the materials she teaches in her courses. She discusses her policy of developing a class “covenant” that expressly forbids students from using the N-word or other slurs. She talks about how having a clear policy allows her and her students to read parts of texts where slurs are used without avoiding those passages and most importantly, she argues that not saying the slurs do not prevent the students from being able to analyze the texts deeply and critically. In fact, she posits (and her students featured in the podcast affirm) that such a policy allows for deeper engagement because students are not worried about how to approach these texts. Her approach allows us (as teachers) to consider more carefully our learning goals and how the diversity of student identities, experiences, and backgrounds in our classrooms changes how we reach those goals.
She repeats a phrase often in her explanation of why White teachers, in particular, are not more thoughtful about how they approach this issue, especially as it might impact Black students and other students of color: “White people are not being special or unique when they hold themselves to incredibly low standards in their interactions with people who are not White.” She repeats this idea of “low expectations” a few times, including how such low expectations apply to people of all kinds of majority identities (including race, gender, and sexuality). She also explains how the everyday violence of our institutions become normalized in moments where racial slurs are read or used in classrooms and workplaces: “When institutions are literally built on the denigrating and diminishing people of color, White people do not have to seem aggressive in order to do great violence. Denigrating and diminishing people of color might be said to grease the wheels that make our institutions and our country function.”
In the episode, Professor Mitchell starts by describing her experiences both with her students and with colleagues around the use of the N-word in classrooms and at her workplace, which, as she importantly points out, includes the classroom. As she notes, she has the right to expect a different standard of conduct in her workplace and for her students to have a different standard of conduct in their learning environment than at a hip hop concert or out on the streets. She then discusses specific passages from Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and James Baldwin’s essay “Notes of a Native son,” which include the N-word and another racial slur, and how her policy allows students to read these passages without re-creating the violence of such words by speaking them and to dig deep into the meaning of those words.
The latter part of the episode features a thoughtful discussion among three of her students who talk about their experiences with the policy and the impact it had on their learning experiences in the classroom.
We recommend a listen whether or not you’re teaching texts with the N-word or other racial slurs. We found Professor Mitchell’s approach and her explanations useful, especially her reminders about how everyday experiences in White institutions can feel violent to students and faculty of color.
Finally, a shout out to our awesome colleague and friend, Marty Baylor, for telling us about the podcast!