To Whom It Should Concern: An Open Letter on the N-Word and Academic Publishing.
To Whom It Should Concern:
It seems almost yearly, if not quarterly, a contingent of individuals in public digital spaces, offer poignant reminders that Black violence, Black death, and Black pain need not be made spectacle to be believed. That is, video footage of Black people being harmed need not be virally circulated online as it does more harm than good. And yet, on Shaun King’s internet, it seems that very act amounts to activism, resistance, or (somehow) transgressive struggle, to some. In fact, it isn’t. It wasn’t. It won’t ever be.
These same logics apply across other contexts, including academia. While antiblackness might immediately invoke whiteness or white people, on the contrary, as a global project antiblackness transcends the bounds of a white gaze, or rather a gaze mediated by whiteness. This is to say, non-Black people of color often participate in antiblack projects in harmful and problematic ways. This brings me to the point of this letter and the (mis)uses of the n-word. My intention is not to litigate the merits, ethics, or philosophies of its use other than to say if you are not Black, I am not personally interested in you using the term, debating the term, speaking the term, nor publishing the term.
On July 14th, 2021 the Journal of Higher Education published an article titled “If Lil’ Wayne Can Say It, Why Can’t I?”: White Male Undergraduates Using the N-Word” by Nolan L. Cabrera and Dee Hill-Zuganelli. In it, the version of the n-word ending in the letter ‘a’ is printed unredacted 6 times and the version of the n-word ending with the ‘hard r’ is printed unredacted 9 times. The authors of the article offered a “trigger warning” in advance of the piece while the editor of the journal released a comment on the process leading to his ultimate decision to publish it. Beyond the reductive nature of framing potential righteous outrage as a matter of being triggered, both statements signal that the gravity of the word, its painful histories, and implications of its use are not lost on them. Yet, those realities did not outweigh publishing the article for what appears to be purely summary philosophical implications.
As a junior professor and given the profile of my own work, I intimately understand the arguments and imperatives around academic freedom and why they are important. I also recognize we live in a “free country” — a misnomer to be sure — complete with freedom of speech. However, there is certainly a bare minimum of respect and discernment I — perhaps naively — expect from scholars, especially those who claim a radical or critical or liberatory or justice-based politic; and journal editor(s) who in one keystroke can recognize the impact and import of global anti-black violence but in another mouse click publish an article recounting variations of the n-word — which were uttered by white participants of a research study — unredacted 15 times.
As a junior scholar, there are many risks to writing a letter like this and sharing my perspective on a matter facilitated by individuals with more power than I, higher ranks, and holding keys to a process (publishing) I am expected to navigate on my journey toward tenure. Yet those risks do not matter if the corresponding behavior causes harm and especially on a matter where few are willing to stand up publicly on this issue in defense of Blackness and Black people. But now I say, enough.
My frustration with this particular study and author is not new. In the book White Guys on Campus: Racism, White Immunity, and the Myth of “Post-Racial” Higher Education the n-word in both forms appear approximately 7 times (for those counting it appears less in a 200-page book than it does in the article in question). I know this to be true because I reviewed the book 2 years ago for the Journal of College Student Development. Unfortunately, I was unable to offer my personal perspectives on the text because of the rigid and prescribed structure of their book reviews. They are more about explaining what is in the book and if the author met their intended goals and less about what reviewers think about the text. I remember the visceral reaction each time I read the n-word typed in ink on the page unredacted. Like 7 blows to my gut. Blows that felt like everyone saw but no one really cared about, including Rutgers University Press. I wanted to protest, I wasn’t sure how. I knew it bothered me, but I let it go fearing what might happen if I speak plainly about the violence of that choice. I constructed that review about a month or so before I was to begin my first role on the tenure track and I thought no one would read it. I now regret not withdrawing my review altogether.
Later that academic year, Cabrera was invited by my institution to speak as part of a diversity lecture series. I attended because the series was planned by faculty in my department and I wanted to support it. The spoiler is this, not only was information from the same study presented but in addition to the privilege of learning once again about the well-known private racism of white guys on campus, I got the opportunity to actually hear the audio; in a lecture hall with dozens of white people and only a handful of people that looked like me in the room. I got to hear the nonchalant callousness of white undergraduate students saying the n-word, out loud; a decision made by Cabrera. I can still recall time stopping as his mouse hovered over the audio while I waited for the click. The click where he would press play launching a dagger into my chest with a giant ‘N’ inscribed on the handle. I was enraged. If memory serves, that issue was not addressed with him directly by representatives of my institution but I am grateful for at least one of my colleagues who discussed, debriefed, and agreed with me on the violence of the choice.
And now here we are once again, with this same study, issue, and what can only be described as reckless disregard for the humanity of those who are harmed by that word. In explaining their decision to publish the article in its form, the journal editor(s) mused whether asterisking the n-word would sanitize the findings, they also meditated on the question “Who is actually being protected when we soften the blow of the n-word.” It is curious to me that in a study about Whiteness in which subjects engage in violence against Blackness, that the recipients of that violence — historically and contemporarily — did not warrant marginal protection from a truth — both authors and editors admit — are well-known to us because we live it. So then the question becomes who benefits from seeing that word, unredacted? I assure you it is not Black people.
To understand the insidious and elusive nature of anti-blackness — in this instance in the form of epistemic violence — we must examine the rationales closely. In the preface of the piece the authors write “we found that after almost six years of presenting this research that using asterisks sanitized the narratives and divorced them from the deep linguistic violence of these White men’s words.” The deeper question then becomes for whom does redacting the term divorce it from the genesis of its violence? Again, surely not Black people. I am not one to speculate, but one would have to wonder, after 6 years of presenting this work, what exactly was the response that frustrated the authors. What precisely did audiences do or not do that would compel a choice to render such violence? Were people not shocked enough? Not in awe enough? Not squirming enough in their chairs? There is a saying that if you do a work of consequence, there will be consequences. It is my sincere hope that scholars are not resolving to a scholarship of spectacle, of useless provocation, of smoke and mirrors to avoid feeling/being inconsequential. A scholarship where shock value outweighs true assessments of the potential of our work while maintaining a balance of being critically effective while also reducing harm, or suspending damage to invoke Tuck.
The editor similarly wrote, “By not ‘sanitizing’ the n-word in the subjects’ expressions, it made me even more uncomfortable with and compelled to confront the privileges that accompany whiteness, which enabled these men to ignore their part in addressing racism”. The question this raises is does the discomfort experienced by non-Black people justify the import of the violence of that term, and if so, to what end? If we are to understand these rationales by their most basic essence using the n-word unredacted is largely about appalling non-Black people into discomfort and about attempts to hold white people accountable — which is nearly impossible — at the expense of harm reduction for Black people. Which is to say, our pain is bartered to make non-Black people “feel something” in hopes they might act; emphasis on might. The rationale suggests that using the n-word unredacted in this piece is not about Black people at all but rather helping White people do better? Oh, what a web we weave. This is problematic, and it is a dangerous precedent that has been set in Higher Education journals.
These rationales are eerily similar to the reasoning offered by many people when they are asked to stop sharing footage online of gratuitous violence against Black people — often by the police — which amounts to: “awareness”. “People need to know about this!” People need to see this!” they cry. And now we are led to “People need to read this!” I wholeheartedly disagree. As sure as I sit and write this letter I know that just like videos of police killing Black people will not stop the murder, printing the n-word unredacted will not stop white people who are committed to saying it and engaging in anti-black violence, from doing so.
Further, the ultimate decision to publish the unredacted n-word suggests that the only way to reduce or cease antiblack racist harm is for Black folx to be subjected to harm in the process. I reject the premise of this notion. And to be clear, arguing that Black people do not have to read the article or can request a redacted version is not only paternalistic, and entirely beside the point, it is insulting. If the journal editors and authors had forethought enough to know a redacted version might be needed upon special request, then the unredacted version need not have ever existed.
Not only did this decision create spectacle, in the long run, if the pattern prevails it will actually have the opposite intended effect: desensitization to the terror of the term. Greater and more brilliant scholars before me have argued that language is epistemic, meaning it is often doing something toward particular ways of knowing and being. To print the n-word unredacted, knowing it dripped from the lips of its white speaker like a poison that does not affect them, reinforces harm that we know too well. It reinforces and reminds us of power dynamics and differentials that subjugate Black people. It reduces the term to being un-harmful; inconsequential even because frankly it’s not even worth redacting anymore. Surely, a sign of the post-anti-Black times.
There is nothing more American than the spectacle of Black pain and death. We know this because of the sordid history of this country from enslaved Africans being forced to bear witness to whippings designed to ‘teach’ them a lesson, to historical lynch mobs — often framed as fun-filled events to attend complete with food and prizes — to the modern-day viral videos of police lynchings; and all the touchpoints in between. It would be dishonest to try and qualify the printing of the n-word as outside of the spectacle of Black pain which has become an American pastime. A spectacle on display, almost laughing and mocking us for the pain we feel for seeing it, especially when cast by non-Black people. The pain we know for its existence at all in the first place.
I understand the n-word is not a word the authors, the journal editors, or maybe even that the reviewers use. But those students used it. And regardless of what their understanding was when they used it, as critical scholars, we ought to know better and know what to do with it. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, what this decision reflects is antiblack solidarity at work. That we even need to debate whether one should exhibit and consume antiblack violence in pages of our scholarship in this way not only underscores the ordinary nature of antiblackness and dismissal of Black life but the insatiable appetite White and non-Black people of color have for Black pain. I would expect better politics or at minimum, better ethics from my colleagues. And yet, it’s a conundrum because antiblackness is not ethical, but par for the course so perhaps on this point we are at an impasse.
There is an old saying in the Black community — at least in mine — which was always incredibly salient when dealing with interpersonal conflict between friends, family, acquaintances, and now I argue, colleagues. A not-so throwback to “he said/she said/they said” world of gossip, trash talk, and even hate speech. We were always taught to never be surprised that someone said something terrible about us in our absence but instead to be vigilant about who came bearing the news. Those words from my Mother likely borrowed from her own upbringing ring in my head at this moment: “Don’t tell me what they said about me, tell me why they were so comfortable saying it to you”.
And I would add to this: tell me why you felt so comfortable publishing it. 15 times.