The Purge – Niggeritus
This week has perhaps been the hardest teaching week for me so far (12/16/13 – 12/20/13). Grad school projects were due, and students’ behavior was just an OD management job. They’ve been extremely difficult to focus, and to keep calm. They’ve been screaming, cursing, sending subs, threatening, ignoring, complaining, joking, singing, beatboxing, rapping, harmonizing, old-school jamming, procrastinating, playing, ditching, sleeping, leaving just to return 15 minutes latering maybe…ishing, lovable, needy, supportive, childish, disrespectful, helpless, suprisingy ingenuitive, cunning, model, motivated, artistic, compelled, engaged, everythingish people to us lately.
I’ve almost lost my professionalism thrice over the past week, or maybe definitely once… who knows exactly, that’s not the point. At the end of the day, I’m a teacher, my students, the public, and myself expects me to teach these kids.
One of my many jobs is to see past these front(s) and in a way manipulate that student into learning. It’s a game of chess… trying to get these vessels to learn no matter what they’re wrapped in on their exteriors. I’m trying to frame my practice this way, and I will say that it has helped me really change the way I view my job, especially in how I prepare and approach this work.
Someone once told me that “Teaching is Activism.” A strong activist knows the importance of resilience. Even so, I’ve never felt as defeated as I did on Tuesday. The students were all coming in from their lunches and advisory classes from the day. I think all of the advisories had had pizza parties celebrating the holiday. I had already been a rough day week in general. (Just to be transparent I had actually tried pretty hard to mentally prepare myself to have a strong week going in to Christmas Break – this however is one of those times when my positive framing didn’t work.)
6th period was about to begin. They’re a class that has a lot of energy… but its more social energy vs. the back and forth energy of my 3rd period class. The late bell rang and students began wondering in one after the other rubbing their bellies and mumbling variations of “Damn, I got Niggeritus(is). I wasn’t ready…. For the devastating combo.
Sidebar: I almost feel like I have to be an assassin when it comes to the students’ casual usage of Nigga in class. The students say it a million times a day, and almost a million times a day I give them the screw face and remind that that I really hate when they use that word. Of all the words… THAT is the one I expect you to stop using. “I can’t stop saying saying it, it’s too hard.” or “Why? I am a Nigga?” or “It’s ok, Black people can say the word Nigga, followed by a quick google search of “Can black people say nigga?” which of course brought up results that they can.” The word is sooo engrained in the students language, I can tell they literally don’t think before they use it at least not in school buildings. I’m sure there are some settings like an interview where they would feel the need to track their language better than normal. Its just a terrible word to feel the need to police in a school setting. It’s the never-ending always happening battle in the classroom.
BACK TO THE STORY:
…I wasn’t ready…. For the devastating combo. I instantly retorted something about stop saying that word with my more than usual frustrations. This time was different, the students again replied in a “Oh my bad” fashion followed by the “I thought it was a word” coupled with genuinely clueless facial expressions. Unaffected they all began to drift back into the sea of off-task conversations going on in the room as my co-teacher and I tried to usher them into completing their journals. My expression turned from routine reminder mode to concerned and inquisitive.
By his time there were maybe 3 or 4 students (if I’m lucky) paying attention to my changing expressions. I half-way mustered out a “NO, it’s not a word!” in between my frustration and in disbelief. I stood there struggling for words. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever felt so powerless as a teacher. The bar had been reset in a way. My students have grown up in a time and in a culture where for them Niggeritus was as clearly a word as mother, or birth, or school.
”No, that is not a word, you won’t see that in the dictionary… Stop using that word, y’all really disappoint me when you use that word! You have no idea….(insert Peanuts voice)”
At some point I returned to teaching using the barely there energy I had left in me. The only thing that saved me were the slight tugs I would give my hair to pull me back into reality. I couldn’t quite deal with how overwhelmed I had become in that moment. It was a real moment of unwanted clarity. I saw what is always really difficult to see in this role – just how brainwashed my students had become.
Of course I was thinking about it on at least two levels. The challenge I had with teaching and really preparing my students to code-switch and track their language before they speak it. Furthermore, the level at which Black English and Common American English have mixed and diluted each other. (<– Overly complicated and vague description)
I don’t know if its right or wrong, but I was more hurt at the enculturation of the word Nigga/Nigger. And how in a very short time, my students have learned to completely devalue a word that carries such tragic history in this country. The painful part was just seeing how overtime language could be re-valued. Once language looses its meaning, how do you describe events and ideas that depend on those specific contexts?
Ferris State University has some great information about Black stereotypes and caricatures that I found a year ago. I read some of these a while ago and recommend them for anyone looking to learn more about historically demeaning Black Stereotypes and images. I’ve inserted just a few explanations and usages for the word Nigger below. It was hurtful when I read these… but pain can be the best motivator of them all.
Ferris State University: Nigger and Caricature
The word nigger carries with it much of the hatred and repulsion directed toward Africans and African Americans. Historically, nigger defined, limited, and mocked African Americans. It was a term of exclusion, a verbal justification for discrimination. Whether used as a noun, verb, or adjective, it reinforced the stereotype of the lazy, stupid, dirty, worthless parasite. No other American ethnophaulism carried so much purposeful venom, as the following representative list suggests:
- Nigger, v. To wear out, spoil or destroy.
- Niggerish, adj. Acting in an indolent and irresponsible manner.
- Niggerlipping, v. Wetting the end of a cigarette while smoking it.
- Niggerlover, n. Derogatory term aimed at whites lacking in the necessary loathing of blacks.
- Nigger luck, n. Exceptionally good luck, emphasis on undeserved.
- Nigger-flicker, n. A small knife or razor with one side heavily taped to preserve the user’s fingers.
- Nigger heaven, n. a designated place, usually the balcony, where blacks were forced to sit, for example, in an integrated movie theater or church.
- Nigger knocker, n. axe handle or weapon made from an axe handle.
- Nigger rich, adj, Deeply in debt but ostentatious.
- Nigger shooter, n. A slingshot.
- Nigger steak, n. a slice of liver or a cheap piece of meat.
- Nigger stick, n. police officer’s baton.
- Nigger tip, n. leaving a small tip or no tip in a restaurant.
- Nigger in the woodpile, n. a concealed motive or unknown factor affecting a situation in an adverse way.
- Nigger work, n. Demeaning, menial tasks.(Green, 1984, p. 190)
Nigger has been used to describe a dark shade of color (nigger-brown, nigger-black), the status of whites who interacted with blacks (nigger-breaker, -dealer, -driver, -killer, -stealer, -worshipper, and -looking), and anything belonging to or associated with African Americans (nigger-baby, -boy, -girl, -mouth, -feet, -preacher, -job, -love, -culture, -college, -music, and so forth).4 Nigger is the ultimate American insult; it is used to offend other ethnic groups, as when Jews are called white-niggers; Arabs, sandniggers; or Japanese, yellow-niggers.