“He had us all, the way only a pretty [n-word] can.”
That’s what Yunior, the narrator of Junot Díaz’s Nilda, says about his older brother–only he doesn’t abbreviate the racial epithet. Instead, he uses the entire word, quite a few times. Yunior is a Dominican-American teenager who covets his older brother’s girlfriend, a girl with “super-long hair” and “a chest like you wouldn’t believe.” Nilda, a poignant glimpse into Yunior’s life, appeared in The New Yorker at the end of the last millennium.
A few years ago, a teacher in New York City assigned this story to her ninth grade English class, allegedly invoking the ire of school administrators who disapproved of Díaz’s use of the “n-word.” When this happened, the teacher was already struggling with the district over her lesson on the Central Park Five, a tragic case in which five black and Latino teenagers were wrongly convicted of raping a white woman in 1989.
The teacher lost her job, and so she sued the New York City Department of Education, claiming that district officials retaliated against her in violation of her free speech and due process rights. According to the lawsuit, Jeena Lee-Walker v. N.Y.C. Dep’t of Educ., et al, an assistant principal allegedly told the teacher to be “way more balanced” in how she taught the Central Park Five case because the administrator “feared that it would unnecessarily ‘rile up’ black students.”* Regarding Junot Díaz’s Nilda, a school administrator allegedly ordered the teacher to remove it from the lesson because of its use of the n-word.
Two weeks ago, on November 23, 2016, a federal court in New York dismissed the teacher’s case. The court concluded that her termination was not a violation of her rights because school districts may “limit the content of school-sponsored speech so long as the limitations are ‘reasonably related to pedagogical concerns’” and the disagreement between the teacher and school administrators regarded “the content and tone of a lesson,” which apparently is not entitled to First Amendment protections.
Courts generally give schools wide latitude when it comes to developing curricula, so I guess I’m not surprised by the outcome. It’s a shame, though.
It’s concerning that the school district would (allegedly) censor a lesson about the Central Park Five based on its fear of “rile[d] up black students.” That stereotype has no place in our educational system, though it’s hardly surprising that it’s there. The educational system harbors and reinforces all the same biases the criminal justice system does.
It’s also concerning that the school district would (allegedly) ban Nilda. I understand how offensive and controversial the n-word is. As I’ve said previously on this blog: “[T]he N-word has extraordinary force in our culture, perhaps greater force than virtually any other bigoted insult.”
School officials have a reason to worry when words that have the power to inflict pain become part of the curriculum, but in this case, we’re not talking about small children. We’re talking about 9th graders, students old enough to understand the harm racial epithets cause and the literary context in which the words are used.
As HLS Professor Randall Kennedy has pointed out, the n-word can “be said in many ways, put to many uses, and mean many things.” The context matters. In Díaz’s story, Yunior does not use the n-word maliciously.
Nevertheless, a school official allegedly ordered the teacher to remove the story from the curriculum, treating it as though it were no different from KKK or neo-nazi literature. Removal of that story from the curriculum silences a diverse voice in a subject in which non-white voices are typically rare: English literature.
That’s unfortunate, especially when the only meaningful exposure some people have to diversity comes through literature. Without it, it’s harder to break down the stereotypes that reinforce our societal biases.
*Citation: Jeena Lee-Walker v. N.Y.C. Dep’t of Educ., et al, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 162561 (S.D. N.Y. Nov. 23, 2016). [See the link in the post to read the opinion]