Is the N-Word Just A Word?: An Interview with Dr. Ibram X. Kendi
BY: COURA FALL
The Blackprint spoke with Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, a professor at American University and director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center, to discuss the impact the N-word can have on a collegiate setting, as well as how institutions should respond. Dr. Kendi’s groundbreaking work on antiracist policy and practices has earned him the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship allowing him to work on his next book, “Bones of Inequity: A Narrative History of Racist Policies in America” and continue his research.
THE BLACKPRINT: Upon being asked “why he thought it was okay to say that word,” in a video that has now gone viral, Aise O’Neil answered “I think it is okay to say any word.” His opinion has sparked a conversation about the meaning of the N-word and the power of language. Is it “just a word”?
DR. IBRAM X. KENDI “Everyone has certain words that when said about them or said to them, they find hurtful or find offensive and would make them angry. If someone in the United States who is old enough to be in college and does not recognize that the N-word is one of those words for African Americans, then they have a serious sort of problem. I suspect that there are words that you could say to him that he could find offensive and he is no different from anyone else. If the person is to respond it is just a word, he would say, ‘no it is not just a word, what you said hurt me, offended me,’ so all that it is a defense and a denial that what he said was offensive.”
BP: The University released a two-part response, the first to Tasneem Osman’s tweet of the video and the second included a message stressing the importance “to recognize that freedom of expression comes with responsibility.” Do you find this response satisfactory, and if not, what should the university do or say in order to provide solace to the community?
KENDI: “As I have mentioned to university officials, they should have been much more specific about the process that this student is going to undergo as a result of the Student Code of Conduct, as well as the potential outcomes of what could presumably happen in this situation. It would have actually demonstrated that the university is doing something, and there are people who clearly believe that the university sweeps these things under the rug and doesn’t do anything. So the university needs to be very public and clear and specific after these types of incidents about what it’s doing.”
BP: On the topic of freedom of speech, there is much debate about how this fundamental right plays out in a university setting. What does “freedom of speech” mean to you and are campuses being “too sensitive?”
KENDI: “Free speech in recent years has been used to defend racist and other forms of bigoted speech. In our society, if a child says something demeaning to that child’s mother, if a students says something demeaning to that student’s teacher, if a worker says something demeaning to that worker’s supervisor, they can’t claim free speech and expect to not be punished. But somehow when it comes to people expressing bigotry, they feel they can defend themselves by claiming free speech to escape punishment. To me, this [situation] is not an issue of free speech.”
BP: People have been saying that the student was not given the opportunity to explain himself, and was instead cut off and shut down, so do you think that campuses are “too sensitive?”
KENDI: “Yes. Because if not the case, any student on this campus can say whatever they want, to whoever they want and get away with it. As I have mentioned, if a student comes to class and berates the professor, there is probably going to be a punishment and a consequence, and no one is going to think there is a problem with that. And professors and administrators will laugh in that student’s face if he claims or she claims free speech. In many other areas on this campus and other campuses, people do not have the ability to say whatever they want, to whoever they want, to whomever they want. But when it comes to bigoted speech, particularly racist speech, we somehow are giving these people a pass.”
BP: On social media, the video sparked a contentious debate with some saying that it is hypocritical that Black people can use the word, but that white people are “not allowed to.” Why do you think this discussion is still occurring? and is this premise hypocritical?
KENDI: “I think that this is a defense mechanism. White people are used to having dominion over everything, over every space, over every institution, over every word. They want to have the power to speak, to say, to do, to dominate whatever they want whenever they want. And to me, African Americans have made it crystal clear that there is a red line, and one of those red lines is the N-word, and so to me this is not about what’s fair, this is about power. And white people want to have the power to say the N-word. The excuse that ‘well Black people say it why can’t we’ is used to justify their ability to exercise that power.”
BP: In classes like AUx, which work to advance conversations around power, privilege and inequality in the college community, people of color face the discomfort of teaching their peers about their experiences as marginalized people. Do you think classes like these are beneficial to having difficult discussions about social issues, or are they placing a burden on students of color to educate others?
KENDI: “I’m not super familiar with the program and I have not seen the classes, but I have certainly heard critiques, and I think that the critiques that I have heard if they are true, [suggest] that, essentially, AUx is a space for white students to feel free to express their bigotry on the premise that they need that safe space in order to sort of free themselves from that bigotry. At the same time, students of color have to sit there and listen to those ideas and don’t see the instructors checking those racist ideas. If that’s happening, then clearly that’s a problem because I think that no space that is geared for students of color should have white students. ”
BP: To that point, there has been a petition going around on campus to support Black students to have their own safes spaces so that they can process these issues amongst the community, but also to have a space for other students of color to meet, especially at a predominantly white institution such as AU. Do you support that?
KENDI: “Yes. And I think that anyone who does not support Black students and other students of color having their own spaces where they can form solidarity with those who have similar experiences, similar backgrounds and similar cultures, anyone to me who is not supportive of that is stating that ‘you are not going to have any space on campus that is formal that is for you, and that is for people like you. And that you have to constantly maneuver these foreign alien spaces and that is supposedly good for you.’ At the same time, you and other students like you are trying to focus on your studies, and I do not think that [those combined obstacles] are best for students of color. I do not think it is segregation or separation, because if it is, that means that a fraternity or sorority is a form of separation or segregation. Any club that has been formed around any interest area can be regarded as segregationist or separatist, but we don’t do that. It’s only when Black students or students of color want to formulate spaces and programs around their interests that we call that segregation or separation. All of these other groups whether based on gender, or place of origin, whether based on specific interests or topics, that’s supposedly fine, so yes, I am supportive of Black spaces. ”
BP: Following this racial incident and the others that have preceded it here at American University, what should we take away, as a college community, from this situation in order to foster a safer and more inclusive campus?
KENDI: “I think that every situation is different. So you have situations in which this type of racial or racist incident happens because you have this very bold and very racist student, and that is sort of the origin of it. In other cases, it is a response to something antiracist that is happening on campus. Like the election of the first black woman president in AU’s history. Typically when you have antiracist successes, there is going to be a racist reaction. Or even the unveiling of the mission of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center, of course there was a reaction to that. So I don’t necessarily [think] it’s the result of racism at AU, I think it is a reaction to anti racist achievements at AU.”