Understanding why painful words are painful | In Our Opinion

Poulsbo Elementary School Principal Claudia Alves has been placed on administrative leave after she used the N-word, not once, but several times — first, in a discussion with a student about how a word of concern to the student wasn’t as bad as the N-word; then in more than one discussion with the student’s parents, one of whom happens to be African-American.

Contrary to some reader comments, the issue is not that students felt uncomfortable using the word “Negro” in a school play, a word that is likely unfamiliar to them. The issue is that a principal used the N-word to explain how “Negro,” a race classification, is not the same as the offensive word. The school district’s director of elementary education said it was not necessary for Alves to use the N-word in explaining that difference. And it wasn’t necessary for her to use the actual word again, and again in discussing the issue with the student’s parents.

Whether we like it or not, the N-word is painful, and we as individuals and as a community need to be sensitive to words that are painful to others. It bothers us that some readers believe “the speech police” are out to dumb us down, to sanitize history, that it’s a word used in literature and in music, as if that excuses its use.

Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts, who is African-American, explained in a recent column why the N-word is painful. It’s something that people who are not of a part of this history cannot understand. But we need to try.

“The N-word is unique. It was present at the act of mass kidnap that created ‘black America,’  it drove the ship to get here, signed the contracts at flesh auctions on Southern ports as mother was torn from child, love from love and self from self. It had a front-row center seat for the acts of blood, rape, castration, exclusion and psychological destruction by which the created people were kept down and in their place. The whole weight of our history dictates that word cannot be used except as an expression of contempt for African-Americans …”

Some reader comments point out that the N-word is used in rap music and by some African-Americans, and Pitts addresses that too, disagreeing with that “context” argument. Referring to a New York Times column by African-American social critic Ta-Nehisi Coates, Pitts wrote, “In defending the N-word as an ‘in-word,’  Coates noted how some women will jokingly call other women by a misogynistic term or some gay people will laughingly use a homophobic slur in talking with or about one another. Some of us would say that’s not such a good look ... Some of us think there is cause for dismay when women, gay people or any put-upon people adopt the terminology of their oppressors as self-definition.”

That discussion is happening in homes and communities across the country. In fact, the 11-year-old boy who had the discussion with Alves lives in a home that teaches that the N-word is wrong and is never to be used, in any circumstance. But note: As people work to bury oppression terminology, the rest of us do not have a ticket to perpetuate the words that hurt.


— This version corrects the boy's age in the last paragraph. He is 11.

We encourage an open exchange of ideas on this story's topic, but we ask you to follow our guidelines for respecting community standards. Personal attacks, inappropriate language, and off-topic comments may be removed, and comment privileges revoked, per our Terms of Use. Please see our FAQ if you have questions or concerns about using Facebook to comment.

Read the Oct 21
Green Edition

Browse the print edition page by page, including stories and ads.

Browse the archives.

Friends to Follow

View All Updates