Better responses to N-word incident possible from its speaker, teacher and elected officials (updated)
Over the past few days I’ve had many conversations around town about the N-word incident that has recently captured the attention of the Cambridge Public Schools community, read The Boston Globe news coverage – including its comments section – and followed a parents’ Listserv conversation on the topic. Having been an active district parent for 16 years and an education consultant often working with schools in conflict, I offer a series of points for consideration.
Please know that I write as an expression of solidarity and admiration for the School Committee’s work, with a deep appreciation of the challenges and hopes for its success. I’ve given this matter considerable attention for a few reasons: I support the committee’s collective sentiment that this incident presents a powerful learning opportunity; I’ve participated in two of the Cambridge Digs Deep facilitated dialogue sessions and support that important citywide initiative; and committee handling of this incident may significantly affect public trust in elected officials’ competence to lead and govern. Following are observations and recommendations:
As many have pointed out, Kevin Dua announced a classroom forum topic with the N-word in print, then modeled its seeming appropriate verbal use himself at the outset of the class. As such he set an implicit norm that, in this setting, participants had permission to use or quote the word. Therefore School Committee member Emily Dexter’s subsequent quoting of the N-word and the subsequent adverse reaction seems an instance of miscommunication around norms. Such an occurrence would normally be addressed by a facilitator check-in with the group and subsequent agreement regarding language use going forward. In retrospect, perhaps such an intervention and/or process of more explicit norms development at the outset of the forum would have prevented hurt all around.
Since the norms were set implicitly by the teacher and not explicitly co-created and agreed to by the participants at the outset, Dua shouldered a higher level of responsibility for the unfolding discussion than participants. Rather than blaming Dexter as seems to have been the case, he might have (and still could) acknowledge primary responsibility for the course of events.
Despite this, I applaud Dua for his readiness to organize the class and forum. It is important that teachers take on sensitive issues, engage students in the process and model appropriate academic and social risk-taking. Flawless teacher facilitation is difficult, especially when tackling issues of prejudice and bias with such a diverse group of youth and adults. While I think he should be held to account for his role in what seemed an unnecessary escalation, he should also be recognized for his courage and skillfulness – even if not flawless.
A more appropriate response by Dua and Dexter to the students’ concerns might have been: “We are sorry that you felt offended by a white person quoting the N-word, but this was an academic forum explicitly designed to explore student access to and discussion of this and other words deemed as offensive. As such we thought it clear to all involved that unpacking the N-word, though challenging and inevitably causing some participants to experience uncomfortable feelings, would be productive. Furthermore, eliciting feelings such as those you experienced are an essential and intended part of the learning process at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School. If we were to teach so as to avoid any and all triggers, deep learning essential to your developing as productive and happy community members would not occur.”
The greatest disservice in all this may be the coddling of the students who reported being caused discomfort or feeling triggered. Students (and adults) do not learn to manage triggers when saved by adults or supported by adults as they inappropriately accuse others for having behaved badly and brought hurt upon them. In this instance it seems that with the encouragement of adults, students blamed Dexter for their discomfort rather than owning it as part of the forum structure and then seeking to better understand.
Dexter’s apology to the students may not have felt genuine because, based on the evidence, she had nothing to apologize for. By her explaining and providing context during a follow-up meeting with students, she indeed seems to have stepped back from issuing a full apology. Perhaps she thereby implied students should assume some ownership for their own hurt feelings and responses. Anything more “genuine” in terms of apology would, in my view, have suggested that these students are not capable of mature discussion nor expected to capably explore uncomfortable topics.
This incident and its subsequent responses seems a clear expression of “outrage culture,” a problematic national trend by which people overreact in their defense of an assumed victim. In amplifying and distorting the scope or scale of the facts, they misguide public perception of events, create innocent victims and draw excessive attention to themselves as seeming heroic defenders – chivalrous, righteous, empathic and selfless. Outrage culture defies the principles of critical thinking upon which I believe our pedagogy is based. I suggest we remain vigilant to this destructive force when addressing challenging issues, as outrage seems so pervasive, so “in the water” of our wider culture, that it is often no longer even seen.
Some on the parents’ Listserv and beyond, including some scholars on race, suggest that “white people should never utter the N-word, period.” Some also suggest that the public recrimination received by Dexter is not only reasonable but that she should resign. In my opinion the certitude that prescribed (versus suggested) 100 percent censorship would be a remedy is arrogant, authoritarian and unconstitutional. It reminds me of my experiences consulting with schools in China, where I am hyper alert regarding choice of words because penalties for speech deemed off-limits can include fines, imprisonment and shaming of the individual and their associated institution. Bringing it back to Cambridge Public Schools, I think the misguided shaming of individuals and thereby our institutions is something to unpack and correct.
The implicit message to high school faculty and staff and beyond may be that they should avoid advancing discussion on sensitive issues (race, sex, gender, genocide, politics, etc.) since any resulting student discomfort may be assumed as the result of teacher misconduct. Once misdiagnosed as such, there is then the real risk of a teacher being cast into a negative public spotlight. School administration, rather than standing by your side, may fan the flames of criticism or sit in silence. What teacher wants to take that kind of risk? After all, even the most skilled teacher cannot evade a school culture so evidently susceptible to the reactivity of outrage culture.
Next-steps suggestions for the School Committee: How about considering chunking out the investigation with a “Phase 1” conclusion this week and announcement regarding subsequent phases? Phase I could include an apology for having mishandled this incident (modeling humility and vulnerability) and plans to make corrections. Perhaps assist Dua and students who hosted the forum as they continue to explore the range of perspectives presented by members of the district community and experts? Ultimately a public report covering lessons and recommendations could be helpful as well. The point is that timely and assertive communication from the committee could go a long way to restoring community confidence in its leadership in the district and citywide. It would also improve perceptions in the wider Boston area and beyond regarding how we handle sensitive and challenging educational situations.
Larry Childs is a former Cambridge Rindge and Latin School parent, School Council member and Friends of Cambridge Athletics president.
A version of this essay was posted Tuesday to a parents’ Listserv. It was updated Feb. 14, 2019, to remove a reference to the N-word being used in a King Open lesson at some point in the past.