Negotiating Offensive Language at the Serbu Book Club

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April 13, 2011 – Serbu Book Club Meeting 2

*Disclaimer: what follows contains offensive language.

My fellow University of Oregon students and I made special preparations for our second spring term session of Book Club at Serbu Youth Detention Center this afternoon after deciding not to censor the word ‘nigger.’

We (U of O students) selected the play adaptation of Harper Lee’s classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird as our primary reading material for this term because, among other reasons, it is concerned with justice. For decades it has confronted its readers with questions like ‘what is fair?’ ‘Ought communities extend fair treatment to everyone, even those whom they believe they are unlike, and those they are afraid of?’ In responding to these questions and listening to others answer them in a group setting like ours, we draw out our own values and give extensive consideration to those of others. This pedagogy is the subject of Values Clarification, another foundational text for our curriculum this term, recommended to us by Lori Pompa and Melissa Crabbe, National Director and Assistant National Director of the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, respectively.

When I sat down to scan the theatrical adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird, I came upon the word ‘nigger’ almost immediately. On page two a character referred to only as “BOY’S VOICE”—“calling from offstage”, the blocking reads—asks Scout tauntingly, “Hey, Scout – how come your daddy defends niggers?”.

For me, reading that word silently is always as jarring as hearing it spoken aloud. Few words connote such an egregious history of hate, harm, tension, and generally shameful human interaction.

I established very quickly that Harper Lee’s intention in including it was unequivocal. Personally assured of this, I sought the advice of Joe, one of the two schoolteachers for Phoenix, the treatment program housed under the umbrella of the Serbu Youth Detention Center facility, and the unit where Book Club has been held since its inception last summer. We are reading the play aloud as a group during our sessions because, among other reasons, every student will be sufficiently acquainted with the segment to be discussed that day; ideally, no one will be less capable of participation in the event that they fall behind or jump ahead in the reading (previously an issue).

With Joe’s blessing and the support of my U of O peers, I walked into the Phoenix unit this afternoon prepared and nervous to inform the Phoenix youth of our intent to read the word ‘nigger’ aloud as it is printed in Harper Lee’s text. After a few introductory activities and a short break, I gathered myself and read from the notes I had written about race, racism and its treatment in the play. Here is what I said to our group:

I am going to say an extremely offensive word. Bear with me while I explain why.

The word ‘nigger’ is used repeatedly in “To Kill a Mockingbird”. Since we will be reading this play aloud, some if not all of us will be speaking this word, and all of us will hear it spoken aloud. Despite its offensiveness, the U of O students have decided to speak this word as it appears in the play rather than substituting it for “the n-word” or “black”.

The word ‘nigger’ has historically been used to refer to people with dark skin, as we all know. I can tell you with certainty that scientifically (biologically), there is no such thing as race. Despite what many people believe, no true scientist has ever discovered that members of what many people call the ‘black race’ or the ‘white race’ all share a single characteristic: physical, chemical, or behavioral. There is more variation or difference within what people call the black race than between what people call the black race and white race. It is very likely that two people with white skin are actually more different than an African-American and her ‘white’ friend.

Race is socially constructed. This means that people think and talk about a group of people that they believe act similarly, look similarly, share ancestors, or historically live in a geographic region, either because it is convenient or because they do not understand that there are no such things as scientific races. Sometimes people group many people together so that they can be good to them, but too often in history, people have used ideas of race to hate and harm other groups of people. Racism is beliefs and practices that harm members of some races and not others.

We have decided to speak the word ‘nigger’ aloud when reading the play because in “To Kill a Mockingbird”, using the word ‘nigger’ is presented as unacceptable behavior. There is no doubt that Harper Lee, the author of “To Kill a Mockingbird”, includes the word so that we can begin to understand how strongly it was present in the nineteenth and twentieth century social attitudes in the American South, and that it was used by racist, ignorant people who stood fearfully against the rights of African-Americans. Characters that Harper Lee intends for us to disapprove of say ‘nigger’. As we will see in reading it, “To Kill a Mockingbird” is a powerful denunciation of racism and fear-motivated hatred of people we do not understand. In America, the word ‘nigger’ has been used and is still used by people with lighter skin as an expression of their fearful, hateful denial of the dignity of their fellow human beings. We are comfortable speaking this word aloud because we trust that everyone in this room respects the seriousness of racism and the oppression of ‘black’ people in American history.

To substitute ‘nigger’ for an inoffensive word like the phrase ‘the n-word’ when reading “To Kill a Mockingbird” doesn’t seem right. “To Kill a Mockingbird” was written in part to give readers an account of the viciousness of racism that has existed in the United States of America for too many years. Part of capturing this reality is including the use of the word ‘nigger’ in our study of it. If we remove that word, we rob ourselves of a truer sense of the injustice carried out on our own soil. Aren’t we obligated to understand the experience of those who suffered and continue to suffer from fearful, hateful racism as much as we possibly can? Without a true sense of their experience, in which racism and the word ‘nigger’ has been so present, how can we begin to make racism a shameful thing of the past?

I scanned the circle of students before me. It was clear that I had captured everyone’s attention. I added:

If anyone feels at all threatened or uncomfortable with our group using this word in our meetings, or if you don’t mind others using the word when reading from the play but prefer not to use it yourself, simply tell one of the UO students or the whole group and we will work together to find a less offensive substitute.

Before I could finish asking whether there were “questions or concerns about using offensive language as it is written in the play,” two of the Phoenix youth raised their hands with urgency and distress in their faces. I nodded at one of them, whom I’ll call Dan (from this point on the names of Phoenix youth have been changed to honor their confidentiality). I can’t possibly recreate what was said and by whom with the accuracy that I would like to. I have done my best to integrally recount our conversation:

“I don’t feel comfortable with using that word at all, honestly,” Dan said. “I froze up the second time you said it. I’ve had experience with it in the past and I’m just done with it. It’s not cool to say. I’m not OK with it.” He was right.

I called on the other Phoenix student, John (and by now at least three more Phoenix students had raised their hands), who agreed with Dan and expressed the same decided unease with using the term in our readings of the play. Sensing that more Phoenix youth concurred with their peers yet wanting to at least suspend their total dismissal of the idea, I reminded the group again of the difference between using the term in historical fiction to explicitly represent a racist character, and speaking oneself of another with the intention of hurting him/her.

Kehala added her concern with the ethicality of manipulating a work of art by censoring it.

Other Phoenix students expressed that the offensive word in question is “not cool” and “hurtful”. Dan raised his hand again and suggested that an appropriate substitute might be “nigga”, explaining that even between Caucasian friends this an acceptable greeting likable to ‘homey’ or ‘bro’. Jenna, a U of O student, pointed out that using a ‘buddy-buddy’ substitute doesn’t come close to doing justice to the hateful word itself, and thus would only obscure it.

Adam, a Phoenix student, addressed his Phoenix peers directly. “I don’t want to call you drama queens,” he said, his eyes skipping over the faces of U of O students and focusing on Phoenix ones as he leaned back in his chair, “but I’ve heard this word thrown around here [in the Phoenix unit] before and I haven’t seen it bother you guys. Why does it bother you now? It’s just a play.”

Dan’s face flashed red again. “Part of our treatment here,” he reminded his Phoenix peers (and us), “is to create a safe place. Saying words like that make other people uncomfortable.”

John raised his hand again. “There was a time when I threw that word around, when I said it without thinking about it. I’ve gotten a lot better and I don’t want to go back to that. I can’t go back to that.”

Although John shared some his peer’s concerns, there was little doubt by this point that the only person in the room who still felt adamant about our not saying the word ‘nigger’ aloud was Dan. I didn’t expect him to budge from his position. I didn’t want him to, either. As a facilitator, my goal had shifted from advocating that we read the play as it was written to keeping Dan from feeling excluded at all costs.

“Dan,” I said, “I know you feel uncomfortable saying it. That’s fine. Do you feel uncomfortable hearing other people read it aloud?”

“Yeah, I do,” Dan replied. “I’ll go to my room rather than be in here and hear it. I can’t deal with that. I grew up in a family where I heard ‘fucking niggers’ too much. I want to put that behind me. I’m done with that.”

Matt, a UO student, stood with Dan. “If Dan feels like he has to leave then I won’t feel comfortable being here either because as long as any one person in the group is uncomfortable, I do not want to be a part of this.”

James, who was sitting two seats from Dan, raised his hand quickly. “This is a safe space,” he said, looking around our circle. “We know each other and we trust each other. We can handle it. That word is part of life. I don’t want to sound harsh, but sometimes you just have to suck it up.”

It was time to make sure that Dan knew that he would remain included no matter what he position he held in this conversation.

“Dan,” I said, “we would never use a word that would force you to leave this room. How ridiculous would that be, to exclude a person just to express our disgust with a word that has historically been used with the intent of excluding people? I can personally assure you that as long as there is a person in this group who doesn’t feel comfortable hearing that word, it will not be spoken by anyone in this room. That said, we have got to come up with a substitute for it as we read the play. Ideas?”

“We could just say ‘the n-word’ every time we read it,” one of the Phoenix students suggested.

“What about saying ‘negro’?” Arwen suggested. “That word isn’t as offensive but has a similar place in racism.” She flipped through the play in her lap. “It looks like that is another way that characters use to refer to blacks anyway.”

It was a thoughtful suggestion in that ‘negro’ would seem to point to the history of injustice in the United States more effectively than the exceedingly euphemistic ‘n-word’ stand-in. The problem with using ‘negro’ as a substitute, I pointed out to the group, is that more passive racialists (not racists) like Scout and Jem use it to refer to blacks that they support, such as their housekeeper, Calpurnia. Equating the word ‘negro’ with ‘nigger’, then, would equate by extension the disparate characters that speak them, blurring the crucial distinction between racist and racialist individuals. Clarifying these ambiguities is precisely our intention in reading this play.

Ted, one of Book Club’s founding U of O students and an experienced discussion facilitator, chimed in. “I still take issue with the idea of substituting a phrase that doesn’t have meaning for one that has tremendous meaning. I don’t think that is something to be comfortable with, either.”

A number of Phoenix students raised their hands and one by one voiced their agreement with Ted’s comment. As they responded, I watched Dan. He was listening but looked obstinate as ever.

Kyla, a U of O student, raised her hand. “I think we can say ‘the n-word’ because we can trust that everyone will think about the meaning of the word. Even if they won’t be speaking it aloud they will be reading it on the page. So, its significance will be done some justice, won’t it?”

What a quiet but exceptionally astute Phoenix student named Andrea said next stunned me for its thoughtfulness. “Dan has an issue with us saying this word,” she began, “and we want to respect that. But Ted has an issue with us not saying it, and we don’t want to exclude him, either.”

“I appreciate that,” Ted said. “But hearing an offensive word is more offensive than not being able to say one, so I’m fine with making Dan’s discomfort our priority, as that’s clearly more of an issue.”

“OK,” said Phoebe, a U of O student, recognizing the opportunity to move forward. “Then I think that at this point the focus has to be on what word to use instead, because we’ve decided we won’t say that word.”

“Do people feel OK with saying ‘n-word’?” I asked. “Obviously if something more descriptive comes up we will use that instead. But for now . . .?”

I look up at the clock for the first time since we sent the Phoenix kids out for their five-minute break at 2:30. It was 3:00. We had been discussing for thirty minutes and only had ten minutes left.

“Well,” I said, laughing, “looks like we won’t get to the play today. I am so glad we’ve had this conversation. I am so impressed with the fact that we were willing to discuss this so openly, and so respectfully, all within the guidelines for discussion we laid out last week. Since we have ten minutes, why don’t we each say something about how we are feeling now, after this conversation?”

Jenna said: “if Phoenix students want more information and discussion on race and racism, we could provide it.”

John, who was sitting directly to my right, turned to me. “Is there anything you want to add, Alex? We’ve all said what we thought while you listened.” We all laughed. It was funny and playful the way he stepped into the role of facilitator, if for a moment. I thanked him for looking out for me.

He continued: “I don’t want to say you have balls, because that’s inappropriate. But you have cajones for bringing this up with us. I think a lot of people would’ve been scared. I could tell you were nervous when you talked about race at the beginning, but you were also really brave.”

“I appreciate that, John,” I began. “I wish that reading this word as it was written was something that everyone was comfortable with. But I think Dan is brave,” I said, looking across the circle to address him directly. “What if you had been afraid to speak up even though you felt so strongly about this? You would’ve sat here suffering quietly while we went about things totally oblivious to how you felt. You would have been excluded from our group. Thank you for not letting that happen.”

It was 3:10 and we were out of time. It was fitting that Dan had the last word. “I’ll keep an open mind about this,” he said, “but thanks for understanding that I just don’t feel comfortable with this right now. And sorry for cussing earlier.”

This was a remarkable day at Serbu. No, we didn’t get to start the play, and will have to move quickly to get back on schedule next week. The truth remains that I and other U of O students would prefer to respect the integrity of the work and use it was written, especially because Harper Lee’s intent in including offensive language is so explicit.

Here is what did take place:

- A Phoenix student declared Book Club a safe space.

- Phoenix students were receptive and protective of each other’s sensitivities.

- Phoenix students pushed one another to constructively question the limits of their personal comfort, and backed off respectfully when exceeding those limits felt unwelcome.

- Phoenix students defended their Phoenix peers’ sensitivities.

- Phoenix students advocated for U of O students’ sensitivities.

- Phoenix students encouraged U of O students to participate more in the discussion!

Best of all, as Kehala pointed out with impeccable timing towards the end of our conversation, the group spoke boldly and listened generously. After all of this direct discussion, no one was left feeling excluded.

It is my sense that for the first time in my three terms at Phoenix, this is a palpably united, self-supporting community. And this is only week two of nine. From this point we prepare to embark for seven more weeks with this exceptional group of Phoenix youth.

- Alex, April 13, 2011

*Update (5/1/11): A week later, at our next session, Dan raised his hand within the first five minutes and said that he'd considered it more and decided he felt comfortable reading and speaking the word as it appears on the page. With his blessing we are now reading the play without censoring it.