A Cambridge School Committee member is under investigation after a controversial panel involving the use of a racial slur.
In January, a project called “RECLAIMING: [N-word] v. Cracker: Educating Racial Context In/for Cambridge” was held as an exploration of race and the history of racial slurs. Emily Dexter, who is white, said the N-word in full during the panel, and was later criticized by students.
The incident brought up an ongoing debate: Who is allowed to say the N-word, and in what context?
Reverends Emmett G. Price III and Irene Monroe joined Jim Braude and Margery Eagan on Boston Public Radio to weigh in.
According to Price, use of the word is entirely dependent on context, but he said that we live in a “TMZ world” where context is not always available.
“The first to expose, the first exploit, the first to tell, the first to say,” Price said. “So when things happen like that, your visceral knee-jerk reaction is what takes the lead, that's where the story is. So you don't have time to contextualize why she said it, what did she mean by it, and how did she say it.”
Dexter issued an apology, but many students found it to be insincere and inadequate, which then sparked the investigation, or “fact-finding review,” as Dexter’s lawyers called it.
Regardless of Dexter’s intentions, Monroe said the teacher should consider the impact of her words with more weight.
“Cambridge does not know how — white liberals do not know how — to deal with race,” Monroe said. “Basically what he really needed was an apology. The way she did it and the timing of it... Look, she had good intentions but you’ve got to take responsibility for the outcome.”
In Monroe’s opinion, the N-word cannot be conjugated. “I taught a course on power and privilege and one was talking about the use of words, and I remember my students pushing back and they were saying to me, "Professor Monroe, we're not using '-er,' we're using '-ah,’” Monroe said. “And I explained to them, you can't conjugate the N-word because it it is rooted in a history of demeaning a particular group of people.”
This conversation, both reverends agreed, falls into a much larger context.
“I'm not defending this woman, but to jump on anybody when we've got to look at African-Americans who used the N-word, whether they conjugate it or not —which you can't,” Monroe said, “Our love-hate relationship and ambivalence with the word.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to Emily Dexter as a teacher. She is a school committee member.