According to a teacher at Louisiana's top public high school, the n-word is no longer racist and has utterly lost its negative connotation due to overuse. His students (and millions of Americans) seriously beg to differ.
The Benjamin Franklin High School teacher — identified as "Coach Ryan" — got into a heated exchange with one of his black students about why he is entitled, as a white man, to use the racial slur. A video of the argument was originally posted on Twitter but has since been protected.
“That’s racist as sh*t,” the student tells Coach Ryan. “Why can you not understand that it’s racist for a white man to say ‘n****r’ to a black man? It’s f***ing racist.”
The teen then turns to a white classmate and asks him if he would ever use the n-word. The boy agrees that he would not, and the student then opens the question to the entire class. They agree that they would not say the n-word. Coach Ryan then proceeds to dig himself into a deeper hole while giving his students a disappointing lesson in white denial.
"It’s a word that’s used so many times that it doesn’t mean its original meaning,” he insists. “The word has been commoditized so that anyone can use it, and it’s not a negative connotation.”
Not about to indulge an outright falsehood, the student tells Coach Ryan that the word would absolutely have negative connotations if he used it — it would be racist. Then, perhaps sadly inevitably, the teacher brings up the too often debated use of the n-word in rap music, a go-to topic for those trying to justify their use of a word they have no right to.
“If you say the word, it means friend," he complains. "But if I say the word, it means something different."
The racial power structures in place in American society make the reality Coach Ryan is arguing impossible. A white man, who has greater social power and privilege than a black man, cannot use the n-word and expect it to carry the same meaning.
In a nation still grappling with the effects of slavery and Jim Crow, a white person using the slur imbues it with a history of abuse; it is the language of the race of the oppressor. The high schooler explains that the meaning of the word changes depending on who uses it, but the teacher opts to continue talking rather than leaning in and actually listening.
"Not if you want the world to move on,” Coach Ryan says in the video. “If you want this world to be the way it was 50 years ago, then you’re true — you’re right.”
Their argument continues with the teacher saying that no one uses the n-word, but he then proceeds to contradict himself by using it. The student takes fierce issue with this, to which Coach Ryan responds that, "You cannot go through life and act like a word can affect you."
According to the Times-Picayune, news of the exchange traveled through the school quickly. When class finished, students came to Principle Patrick Widhalm's office to stage a sit-in, but it turned into an hour-long assembly on racism in the United States. Widhalm said that students from a range of different backgrounds had "a very good dialogue about the difficulties and the issues that still exist around race, around identity, around the things that aren't resolved."
Benjamin Franklin High School is one of the most diverse schools in New Orleans, with 40 percent of its student body being white, 31 percent African-American, 16 percent Asian, 7 percent Hispanic, and 6 percent multi-racial. While this has unfortunately led to some difficult and revealing moments (this incident was the second time in the academic year a teacher had used a racial slur), it has also contributed to essential and enlightening dialogue.
"When you're black, it changes the whole way people perceive you and people look at you," a student said in a video of the impromptu school assembly. He added that it was the same for women and people in the LGBTQ community. "Realize that it's not just a word when you say stuff like that. Realize all the charges and all the connotations it has in it."
Coach Ryan's explanations for why he should be able to use the most vile racial slur one can use against an African-American is steeped in a deep ignorance of current race relations in America. While he would like to think that we have moved on from "the way it was 50 years ago," he only has to look to the front page to see that we have not. Racism is far from gone, we've just become better at not seeing it.