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Mother, daughter caution board against overreaction on language

Mother, daughter caution board against overreaction on language

Racial epithet often heard in high school halls
Mother, daughter caution board against overreaction on language
Jamaica Miles is pictured in 2016.
Photographer: Peter R. Barber

SCHENECTADY -- Schenectady activist Jamaica Miles on Wednesday cautioned the school board against overreacting to a teacher’s concerns that a racial epithet toward black people is used too often at Schenectady High School.

Oriana Miles, who is both an English teacher at the high school and Jamaica Miles’ daughter, also shared views from students about the word. Those views ranged from, “It’s a word often used to show affection toward others,” to, “Changing (the word's second syllable) from ‘er’ to ‘a’ doesn’t change the meaning of this word.”

The comments come two weeks after high school history teacher Julia Holcomb told the school board the word is used too often in the halls of the high school, and that administrators are overly permissive of its use. She said “my culture did not and does not embrace this term,” and, “I’m tired of individuals telling me it’s cultural.”

Oriana Miles didn’t state a personal position on the use of the word but said she had her students formulate and express their own views on the word after The Daily Gazette published Holcomb’s comments to the board. The student opinions covered a wide spectrum, but her sampling tilted toward more students expressing an acceptance of its use and a belief that black youths can use the word in an empowering way.

“‘People really did flip the word around into a word of empowerment, and I think it’s important people did that,’” Oriana Miles said, reading from the students' remarks.

She also said the students pointed out the word is pronounced in a different way when it is used as a racial slur.

Jamaica Miles, who also has younger students in the district, said, “I personally go back and forth about the use of that word.” But she also said that, if administrators cracked down on its use among students, they would be disproportionately punishing black students and would make it harder for them to engage in school. She said black students do use the word – with the alternative pronunciation – as a term of endearment among friends.

“The more you push students’ language out of the school, the more you push them out,” Jamaica Miles told the school board.

She also said the context and tone with which the word is said does make a difference in terms of the word’s impact. Jamaica Miles said “communities have reclaimed words,” and that a community is made up of many different perspectives.

“No one individual can speak entirely for a whole culture,” Jamaica Miles said. “I do not speak for an entire black culture, and neither does (Holcomb).”

The issue also came up in comments from a pair of board members -- Bernice Rivera asked that the minutes from the Sept. 19 meeting be changed to more specifically indicate what Holcomb had said. The minutes stated Holcomb “spoke about certain behaviors and language at the high school which she feels should not be tolerated,” but the document did not specify what language she referred to.

Rivera asked that the minutes not include the word, but Rivera said she was concerned it was “unclear based on our minutes” what was under discussion.

Board member Dharam Hitlall said he thinks the school board should discuss how that kind of language is used in the district.

“I think this should be a discussion the board should have in the future,” he said. “We are seeing the changes in the type of student we are having -- from an older generation to a new generation -- so I think it’s something we should be discussing.”

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