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Schenectady teacher challenges acceptance of racial epithet's use by students

Schenectady teacher challenges acceptance of racial epithet's use by students

A discussion of language, its impact, sensitivity to others, and guidance of high school students urged
Schenectady teacher challenges acceptance of racial epithet's use by students
Julia Holcomb, a 17-year SHS teaching veteran, is challenging acceptance of students' use of the N-word.
Photographer: PETER R. BARBER/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER

Editor's note: This story contains references to -- and the actual -- racial epithet that is part of a teacher's argument, made in a public forum, for change at Schenectady High School. We have included the full word only in a quotation here, because we believe it is essential to the understanding of the arguments for and against changing the way the school handles use of the word in its halls.

One of the most charged racial slurs in American parlance pierced the air at a Schenectady school board meeting this month, as a high school teacher urged district leaders to stamp out its use among students.

Julia Holcomb, a black teacher and 17-year veteran of Schenectady High School, told the board the N-word is used far too often in the hallways of the school and suggested administrators are overly permissive of its use.

She said she has watched what she called a “deterioration of decorum and respectful behavior” at the high school, which she thinks “is deleterious to the fundamental premise of public education.”

Holcomb told school board members and Superintendent Larry Spring at a Sept. 19 board meeting that “too many of our leaders in administration and the teacher corps” ignored or did not address students using disrespectful language. She said administrators have responded to her complaints by suggesting use of the N-word was “cultural” -- an explanation she refused to accept.

“My culture did not and does not embrace this term… I’m tired of individuals telling me it’s cultural” said Holcomb, who grew up in Schenectady and graduated from the old Linton High School. She used the word about a half dozen times in her public statement to bolster her point. “I’m not a nigger; I’m a human being,” she said

Students' take

Students at the high school said the word is used widely in school – and by students of all races. While most of the students in Roots Club, a group devoted to advancing cultural programs and black history, said the word is abhorrent, they also acknowledged they sometimes catch themselves using it.

“I’m guilty of it. I’ll say it. It just comes out,” said Ja’Deana Cognetta-Whitfield, a senior and co-president of Roots Club. “Because it’s something that’s always been said around me.”

The students said in some cases, it rolls so easily off the tongue students may not even realize they are saying it, using the word in utterances that essentially mean, “my brother.”

A lot of students grew up hearing the word used by people all around them, they said. So, it’s a word infused into many students’ vocabulary. Some of the students also said there was an important distinction in the tone and inflection used as the word is spoken, adding that black students rarely say it with a “hard r,” a pronunciation that is considered hateful.

While the students seemed conflicted over whether the word could ever be used in a non-offensive manner – and resigned to the difficulty of stamping it out completely – they also expressed clarity about the word’s racist roots.

“I don’t think anyone should be saying it,” junior Peggy Monti said. “It represents a really bad time in this country’s history…. No one should be using it, period – not even to a friend.”

They were particularly averse to use of the word by non-blacks, which they said is common, more on grounds of cultural appropriation than concerns about an outright insult. They said some white students and other minority students use the word in the same way as black musical artists and other icons of black culture.

“They like to be every part of being black without being black,” said senior Zia DiLella. “They want the clothes, the words -- they want all of that. But they don’t want the skin color, the background, the history.”

Their comments also laid bare a generational divide. Nicola Dutre, a high school health teacher and the Roots Club adviser, like Holcomb, said she cringed at hearing the word referred to as being a part of black culture.

“No other group of people uses a derogatory word among themselves.” Dutre said. “I don’t know how it got to the point it is so common. It’s just not healthy.”

But the students, at least, seemed more comfortable hearing the word come from the mouths of black students – something that could be understood as an attempt to redefine a word that for so long had been used as an attack.

“I think when a black person says it, it’s at least tolerable because they are attempting to reclaim the word that was used against them,” said Tony Rubino, who also said he thinks no one should use the word.

The word

Loaded with historical baggage like no other word, the N-word for centuries has been used as a racial slur, part of the language of oppression used against blacks from the time of slavery through the modern era.

The word started as a derogatory reference to enslaved Africans well before the United States even formed as a country, and found its way deep into the nation’s fraught racial history. Many researchers and commentators note the links between the word’s use and lynchings. In more recent years, the word has become infused in popular culture and has become part of the common language for some black Americans.

But that doesn’t erase its history.

“It is a racially incendiary term; it has a long history in this country,” said Marcia Sutherland, a UAlbany professor who specializes in the social and psychological development of black children. “It is not culture. It is not linked to the African-American or African culture; it was a word during the enslavement era of this country. When they were lynching African Americans they were called that slur.”

Sutherland said there is not enough education, starting at the earliest grades, about America’s racial history and the ways in which marginalized groups have been oppressed.

The N-word is a part of that history, Sutherland said, and something educators need to teach students more about.

“It’s a matter of students being informed in a balanced way to understand how people are affected by the use of that term, how that term has been used over the history of this country,” Sutherland said. “We have a difficult time in this country of really having a good discussion on this issue.”

Neither Spring nor school board members responded directly to Holcomb’s comments during the school board meeting.

Spring, in an interview Friday, criticized Holcomb for using the word at the public board meeting in an effort to demonstrate her feeling that the word needs to be used less frequently.

“I don’t think it’s an appropriate word to use in any context, including in a board meeting describing how you don’t like the word,” Spring said. “I find that to be an interesting way to make that point.”

Spring said the word should not be accepted in any context, but that administrators and school staff need to treat students using the word differently based on the way the word is being used.

If students use the word as an explicit slur or in an effort to incite, Spring said, they should be suspended. But if students are using the word casually and privately among friends, a gentle reminder to watch the language may suffice.

Spring said the best way to reduce the word’s use is to facilitate more conversations about the word’s history and how it affects people; over time, he said, the district may infuse more lessons into the academic curriculum on how language has been used to oppress specific groups.

At the Sept. 19 board meeting, Leah Akinleye, engagement dean at the high school, followed Holcomb’s comments by detailing efforts the school is making to improve the school environment: holding restorative circles to facilitate difficult conversations among students; a pair of student clubs are organizing a campaign against hateful language; and expansion of a mentorship program with Union College for students of color.

Akinleye said she is confident the environment is improving at the high school. Akinleye later said she would also prefer a world in which the N-word is never used in the school.

“Yes, we do have a lot of work to do," Akinleye said. "Yes, we do have 2,600 students... Yes, it can be a little crowded in the hallways, and we have many different personalities.”

“But our students are here to get educated. They’re here to learn," Akinleye said. "And we are here to provide an education for them.”

For her part, Holcomb admitted to eliciting particular emotions with her public comments. 

"I wanted people to feel uncomfortable," said Holcomb, in an interview after the meeting. "How would you like to walk in the hallways and hear this all the time?"

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