Recently a friend posted a story about how, in an English class somewhere, the teacher was reading aloud from To Kill a Mockingbird, and how the use of the word “nigger” in a passage in the novel was painful for an African-American girl in the class. This is one of those places in modern life where there are no easy answers. It’s a clash between two values — on the one hand, acknowledging the pain of racism and making social changes to overcome racism; and on the other hand, teaching about works of literature. Both are important!
My friend is of the opinion that the teacher ought not to have read the passage aloud, but I fear that’s not a complete or satisfactory solution.
I want to make it clear at the outset that I’m not denying the reality of racism in this country (to say nothing of the rest of the world). It’s an appalling business from sea to shining sea, and we all need to become more aware of our unconscious participation in racist culture.
Nonetheless, I have several questions about this incident.
First, would it have been okay to read the passage aloud if everybody in the class was white?
Second, should the teacher simply assume that the word would be painful for a black student to hear? Some black students might not be bothered at all. How can the teacher determine, in advance, just how painful it will be for a given student to hear the word?
Third, should the book have been assigned to the class at all? How is reading aloud any different from asking students to read the book silently?
Fourth, what if the teacher were black? Would that change anything? Some people feel this is a word that only African-Americans should be allowed to use. Shall we judge that the teacher was wrong because the teacher was white? How is that not a racist judgment?
In the book The Coddling of the American Mind, which I recommend, Lukianoff and Haidt document the trend of which this incident is an example. Tenured college professors have lost their jobs when students protested what they perceived as racist comments. The students were badly over-reacting to comments that were not, in fact, racist, but that’s not the point. The point is, a lot of people have latched onto the idea that people in vulnerable, marginalized groups have a right not to be confronted by ideas or speech that they find painful. The book refers to this as “safetyism.”
This is a profoundly dangerous idea. The whole point of freedom of speech is that it’s not just for ideas that you and I find pleasant and acceptable. Freedom of speech works explicitly to protect speech that you and I find dangerous or deeply offensive. Failure to understand that fact invites a swift descent into fascism.
There’s a lot more to it than this, and I’m not going to go into detail. I would suggest that anybody who is puzzled or disagrees really ought to read the book. But let’s consider another example, a thought experiment that I made up myself. Let’s suppose that the teacher is reading aloud from the final act of Romeo & Juliet, and that one of the students in the classroom has been traumatized by having a brother, sister, or parent commit suicide. R&J ends with a dual suicide, you’ll recall. This student would quite likely have a painful emotional reaction to this scene.
So should we not teach Romeo & Juliet, for fear a student might be overwhelmed by painful emotions on hearing (or reading) that scene? Should the teacher poll the students ahead of time to find out if anyone will be triggered by a discussion of suicide? What if the student knows he will be distressed but prefers not to reveal a private family trauma?
Where do we draw the line? Is the pain of racism somehow uniquely different from other sorts of trauma — and if so, how is it different? This is one of the questions that I have been unable to answer.
Authors who wrote 60 years ago, or 160 years ago, or 460, lived in a different world. They worked within the social norms of their time. Shakespeare’s treatment of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice was certainly a Jewish stereotype. It was racist. Should we refuse to teach this play to students of literature? There are bits of anti-Jewish stereotype in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, by the way. Where do we draw the line? If a teacher proposes to teach Gatsby in an English class, is the teacher expected to poll the class to make sure nobody in the class is Jewish? To me, that seems absurd. Do we teach The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn only to white and Asian students in order to avoid offending black students with Mark Twain’s use of the word?
We might hope that a teacher who is presenting to the class material that may be controversial will take the time to explain the controversy to the students. But might that explanation be even more painful for the black student? Yes, I think that’s one possible outcome. Some black students might prefer just to let the word sail by and not dwell on it. Having attention called to the fact that there’s this one black student in an otherwise all-white classroom might make matters worse! How can a teacher possibly figure out what’s best, or what’s needed?
As a writer, I feel it’s a profound mistake to expect writers from another era to live up to today’s standards of cultural inclusion. Their works, however flawed, remain worthy of study and appreciation.
Beyond this, I don’t like seeing teachers forced to tiptoe through a minefield of social expectations. Teachers should be free to teach. Given the complexities of real life, it’s not realistic to expect teachers to avoid saying anything (or assigning any material) that might be painful for a few of the students in the class.
That’s how I view it. But I don’t think for a moment I’ve prescribed a solution to the problem. The problem remains intractable.