By Contributor Lauren Kirkpatrick
The following series, “Real Talk,” has been developed as a platform for students, especially those of color, to no longer feel as alone in the educational world. Throughout this series, I will be documenting the many voices at my high school that need a brave space to share their experiences. Notably, this series will act as a window for others to learn and broaden their perspective by looking through the lens of a fellow student. Now, you may be asking yourself, “Why would a fifteen-year-old even bother to be doing this? Aren’t they supposed to be too busy studying?” The answer to this is quite simple: for the past few weeks, I and some other students of color have felt isolated, swept under the rug, and disrespected by the way various forms of discrimination have been handled by administrators and peers. Not only is this absolutely morally unacceptable, but it also jeopardizes the learning environment for many students. For instance, when I walk into my high school, I feel that I have a target on my back for being black. This feeling is indescribable for one who has never experienced it. So, through this series, I hope to bring awareness about the conversations we need to be having in schools and to stand by the voices of my peers. All students, adults, and schools involved will remain anonymous.
Part #1: Lost History
Homecoming is known to be a magical time of year for the student body. It is a celebration of new beginnings, a time for class bonding. However, little did I know, that this homecoming would take a very dark turn when I and other students would have to question our “blackness.” My school has been known to have students utilize the term “ni**er” as both a phrase of discrimination and simply a word to use “for fun.” Unfortunately, homecoming somehow amplified this dominant culture at my school. A school where black students comprise less than 5% of the student body, and where we have no official black teachers.
Around the same time as that week, a group of students developed a group chat and invited a well-known, outspoken black student into the chat. The messages following up to their invite were described as plain disturbing. It was a wakeup call for us to be more cautious with our own classmates. The past messages involved the mocking of lynching, the heavy use of the word “ni**er”, and the use of “re**rded.” This situation was immediately brought to administration and was “handled.” Here’s a nice analogy for how that turned out: just like kids shoving clothes under their beds when they need to clean their rooms, the administration attempted a hasty cleanup. The students in charge of the chat ultimately spoke to admin about the discriminatory attitudes behind their actions and apologized to the student pulled into the group chat. However, after this meeting, these students were seen unapologetically mocking the frustration many of us black students feel when the term “ni**er” is utilized by those without the history and heritage behind it. This was once again followed up by black students speaking with administration, yet nothing has changed.
The school-wide conversation we pushed for as a solution was disregarded. Instead, the administration sent a written letter about this aspect of the school culture to some of our teachers to read. The issue with this is that not all staff understood the significance of the letter, or even bothered to try and comprehend. As I walked in the halls, I witnessed teachers stating that they “forgot to read it.” The conversation fizzled out. We need to have these deep, uncomfortable conversations among students and staff to form a safe learning environment for students. I shouldn’t have to feel that I am constantly walking on eggshells with my teachers and fellow classmates because I am black. Students shouldn’t feel they have to disregard their identity because of what the “school culture” deems acceptable.
The history of the term “ni**er” is deeper than just slavery. It is a term that has influenced the story of black people–my people–for generations. Despite its dark history, it has had some fascinating proponents for its free use among those who aren’t black. For many, such arguments are based around mainstream culture, specifically in music. Hip-hop’s history is strongly attached to the African American experience in America. This craft has acted as a platform for many black people due to some artists reflecting on political and social issues through their lyrics. Since this craft was dominated by black Americans, the term “ni*ga” began to be utilized in verses. However, the intent wasn’t to bring down the black community. Instead, it was used for solidarity to reclaim the past.
In today’s time and age, hip-hop has climbed the charts as one of America’s favorite genres of music. However, in many songs, artists (even those who are not even black) utilize the term “ni**er.” This constant use has possibly led the true history of the word to be lost, resulting in people, like the students at my school, trivializing its significance and power. In other words, it seems that at times, the term is being claimed with the intention of taking away its power. Despite the argument for such a term to be used for solidarity with the black community, many may see the word as something that could never be positive, meaning that no one should utilize it. Yet, no matter one’s stance on this issue, it must be considered that the history of the word is no longer discussed in-depth in most majority-white schools. The history is lost.
I urge schools across America to encourage open and shame-free conversations among students about their school’s racist culture. More specifically, think critically about the dominant culture of your school and work to prevent students of color from feeling isolated and stuck. For anyone who has had a similar experience, feel free to write a comment to spark further conversation. For those who want to dig deeper into the use of the term “ni**er,” ask questions and keep an open mind when having these uncomfortable conversations. Share this article with your peers to keep the conversation going and to help the stories of my peers to be heard.
Your friendly neighborhood change agent