University of Vermont

University Communications

UVM Professors Engage in “Real Talk about the N-Word”

Sarah Turner, senior English lecturer; Maeve Eberhardt, assistant professor of linguistics; Emily Bernard, professor of English and interim director of UVM’s Critical Race and Ethnic Studies Program; and moderator Lacretia Johnson Flash, Assistant Dean for Conduct, Policy and Climate
From right, Sarah Turner, senior English lecturer; Maeve Eberhardt, assistant professor of linguistics; Emily Bernard, professor of English and interim director of UVM’s Critical Race and Ethnic Studies Program; and moderator Lacretia Johnson Flash, senior adviser and chief of staff for the Office of the Vice President of Human Resources, Diversity and Multicultural Affairs. (Photo: Sally McCay)

The disturbing video of University of Oklahoma fraternity members singing a racist chant, widely reported in the media this month, has reignited national concern and conversation about race and racism on college campuses. On March 26, four University of Vermont scholars gathered to talk about the epithet at the heart of that video, a word that for years has stirred public debate about race, culture, authority, white privilege and oppression.

“Real Talk about the N-Word and Other Oppressive Language” was the keynote presentation of this year’s Blackboard Jungle, an annual UVM symposium that helps university professionals and others develop a deeper understanding of diversity in the college classroom, as well as the skills and knowledge to have successful cross-cultural interactions within the university landscape.

Emily Bernard, UVM professor of English and interim director of UVM’s Critical Race and Ethnic Studies Program, began the discussion. When preparing her talk, Bernard struggled, she admitted, with whether she’d utter the word itself. “It offends. It wounds,” she said. “It should and it does.” If she were to speak the word, she asked, “what would give me that right? Is it race?”

“Instead of an answer,” Bernard said, “meaning lay in the question itself.” What followed was a powerful discussion of the complex history of the word. Bernard spoke about the deep connection between language and the African American experience, which “begins in language,” she said, “in a battle of names and naming.” For those who suffered as slaves, “new names were a way to assert the dignity they had been denied.”

But Bernard also spoke about the “transgressive pleasure” of hearing the word spoken within certain contexts. “When it rolls off Jay Z’s tongue, it’s poetry,” she said. In conversation among two friends, use of the word can signal “confidence, defiance, intimacy and trust.”

“Language is a dynamic thing,” she said. While her attitude toward the word may change from one situation to another, from one day to the next, one thing remains true. “I’m very much not interested in answering a global question about whether white people are allowed to use the word.”

As the panelists joined the discussion, Maeve Eberhardt, assistant professor of linguistics, took up that conversation. “The n-word in the mouths of whites is the ultimate act of linguistic minstrelsy,” she said. It “allows whites to borrow or try on” black identity and profit from it without facing any of the oppression.

Panelists also included Sarah Turner, senior English lecturer, and Loka Losambe, professor of English. Losambe spoke about the word and others like it from an international perspective, and Turner spoke about teaching African American literature classes as a white professor. She recounted one experience where on the first day of class, a student of color challenged her as an appropriate choice to teach the class, a moment that revealed important questions of identity, scholarship and authority. Over the coming weeks, the student told her, “he had really hoped for a professor of color because he had never had one before,” Turner said, pointing to more questions about representation and access within higher education.

Following the panel discussion, the audience, a near-capacity crowd in the Davis Center’s Grand Maple Ballroom, asked questions of the scholars. A number of students took turns with the microphone, enriching the conversation with questions about racial coding around terms like "thug" and dealing with micro-aggressions on campus. One student commented on and asked about the need for faculty training as they navigate these conversations about race, racism and charged language in the classroom.

The Blackboard Jungle Symposium continued March 27 with workshops designed to offer training on a range of topics, including "Queer People of Color and Their Intersecting Identities," “Collaborative Inquiry into White Privilege,” “How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class” and more.

Faculty professional development continues in the coming weeks with two more workshops on working with multilingual students and preparing students to work with diverse communities.

The symposium is organized by the Office of the Vice President for Human Resources, Diversity and Multicultural Affairs.