“Nigger,” one of my white students uttered in the most unoffensive way possible.
A stunned silence fell over the classroom. There was no outrage, no cries of harm, though shock hovered like a dark cloud. Bugged-eyes of surprised students looked for comfort in the bugged-eyes of other surprised students.
He had uttered the word not as a slur but at my urging. After those six letters slipped from between his lips, his body ever so subtly melted into the plastic chair, his complexion transforming into an odd mixture of ghost white and red, with a touch of purple and blue. He didn’t know what to do next.
I had assigned Randall Kennedy’s Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word. I briefly studied under Kennedy at Harvard Law during my year in Boston as a Nieman Fellow. He’s a Black man from South Carolina, just as I am. I’ve taught his book several times. Some semesters, I didn’t utter the word once. It felt unnecessary because of the flow of those classes and the feedback I was receiving from students.
In other semesters, I said it, unfurling it in all its ugly verbal splendor, knowing those classes needed the full excruciating lesson, sometimes with the help of a clip of Chris Rock’s now infamous 1996 Bring the Pain tour in which he uses the word to step on racial land mine after racial land mine. White students have told me they’ve felt uncomfortable typing the book’s title into a search engine to order it, have hidden it from roommates, and have covered it up when reading in public, afraid someone might accidentally see the title and think badly of them.
“Every time I read that word I squirm because I know it carries so much weight and invokes so much hate,” one white student wrote in a post-semester note.
I’ve taught Kennedy’s book for years. During that period, I learned that my son and daughter were being slurred with that word more than I had been—even though I had grown up in the shadow of Jim Crow and they were born in the New South.
That’s how I ended up challenging one of my white students. He had spent the semester adamantly arguing everyone should be able to say the word. It’s just a word, after all. He was fond of reminding classmates what I had taught. Context and intent must be considered, a principle I adhere to in my journalism as much as in my teaching.
Debates he had with a Black classmate were legendary. Curiously, though, he had never said the word. I interjected during one of their uncomfortably passionate exchanges and asked to which word he was referring.
“You know, that word,” he said before quickly reengaging his classmate in debate.
“What word is that word?” I kept asking.
“That word,” he said again before retreating to “the N-word.”
N-word wasn’t the word in question. The difference between N-word and that word reminded me of Mark Twain’s admonition that the difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug. He felt comfortable saying N-word.
I knew I had the latitude to press, in part, because I am Black. It’s one of the rare occurrences in which my skin color has provided me a kind of perverse privilege, one birthed from white supremacy and Black pain. Non-Black professors should decide how they teach divisive concepts, even that word. But a non-Black professor would be treading treacherous waters if they taught the way I did.
The social construct that is race, with us since before the founding of this country, doesn’t flow in a straight line. I was able to explore the perplexities of that word—which had been conjured up to terrorize people with skin the color of mine, including through public lynchings during which white mobs burned Black people alive in the public square—because of the color of my skin.
I also knew we had spent weeks establishing firm ground rules: no harsh judgments, no matter how intense the discussions. And I had promised I wouldn’t be offended by anything any student said, a pledge I make in all my classes. I’ve learned that students learn best when they feel free to explore knowing that sometimes they might mess up, even badly.
It’s OK if students offend each other. Learning how to navigate peers’ reactions—figuring out when it’s best to rethink and reconsider after receiving feedback or to hold firm—is a skill that will serve them well. Offending a professor comes with risks, real and perceived, because of the imbalance of power. It can stifle a student’s willingness to engage. I try to remove those shackles from their minds knowing it can lead to peril and pain—or life-changing revelation.
“What word?” I kept gently but firmly pressing.
He finally relented.
“Nigger,” he let out in an almost-childlike whisper of a voice.
In March, Davidson College became the first private college in North Carolina to officially embrace a Commitment to Freedom of Expression statement. Faculty affirmed it on a near-unanimous vote; trustees followed suit.
A conservative alumni group called Davidsonians for Freedom of Thought and Discourse wanted Davidson to sign on to the Chicago Principles, a statement adopted by roughly 100 colleges and universities. We borrowed from and used the Chicago Principles as a guide but knew we needed a statement that would fit Davidson’s unique environment.
Former President Carol Quillen tapped me to chair those efforts, though current Davidson President Doug Hicks has been instrumental in increasing support for the statement since his tenure began in August. Quillen named political science professor Susan Roberts and trustee and alumna Beadsie Woo to join the committee. I chose two thoughtful students, Jared Herr and Varun Maheshwari, to round it out.
But I nearly turned Quillen down after learning that former North Carolina Gov. James Martin would be a member of the committee. Martin, a Davidson alum and former faculty member, was a member of an alumni group that seemed hostile to diversity efforts and had been upset that Christian requirements for important positions were being loosened.
I balked. It was an impulse I would come to revisit; a quick judgment based on a few data points about an accomplished man who had lived a complex life. It was the kind of knee jerk I always warn my students to guard against.
“I don’t know if that’s gonna work,” I told Quillen.
She told me to try. I respected her, so I did.
I understood why she urged his inclusion. Though our committee was diverse ideologically, buy-in from the Davidson community would be easier if someone like Martin was involved from the outset. Still, it wouldn’t be easy.
Martin and I are from different worlds and have opposing ideologies. Martin graduated from Davidson in 1957 when it was all-white and all-male. I graduated from Davidson nearly 40 years later, and was one of only nine Black students who walked during graduation. He taught chemistry for 12 years. I’m in the communication studies department and will be a professor of practice this fall.
Martin agrees with “most articles, but not all,” that his namesake center, the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal, has written and believes “the research and analyses published by its staff in its own journals or elsewhere forms a valuable contribution to academic and political discussion of policy issues, at least in North Carolina.”
I disagree with most of the articles I’ve seen on the Martin Center’s website. The center is not affiliated with Davidson. It is a conservative nonprofit based in Raleigh that says it is dedicated to, among other things, increasing “the diversity of ideas taught, debated, and discussed on campus.”
Martin is also a board member of Davidsonians for Freedom of Thought and Discourse. A letter the group circulated became a flashpoint on campus. Among many ugly and factually inaccurate charges, the group accused Davidson of abandoning academic excellence and instead focusing on providing students experiences steeped in “nonacademic” activism, embracing a “far left-wing ideological tilt” that “is already affecting pedological standards,” and disrespecting Davidson’s Christian heritage. It said the Student Initiative for Academic Diversity was “the equivalent of the Cultural Revoltion’s Red Guard under Chairman Mao.”
The group later amended the letter to correct falsehoods about the presence of “official separate ethnic eating houses”—which don’t exist—but still claimed “they have emerged de facto.”
Many on campus and beyond demeaned the group as “old white men” determined to roll back social progress on campus. I didn’t join in that chorus but expressed my profound disagreement—and anger—about their claims during a two-hour-long Zoom call I held with its members. Martin was not on the call, but it has forever colored my views about the group, which claims it’s primarily concerned that Davidson maintains its high academic standards but couldn’t be bothered to get basic facts straight before circulating claims that would later make it harder for me to gain support for the freedom of expression statement.
Because Davidsonians for Freedom of Thought and Discourse was for it, and Martin was a member of our committee, several students, faculty, and alumni were suspicious of our real purpose. I was repeatedly asked: Was the statement to be used as an excuse to either embrace or excuse bigotry?
Martin and I also saw our responsibility to Davidson’s Christian tradition differently. As a member of Davidson’s Alumni Association Board in 2013, I had spoken out against the college’s decision to continue requiring that a president be Presbyterian, arguing that it cut against Davidson’s modern commitment to inclusion. Martin joined 11 former trustees in protest when Davidson finally nixed that requirement in 2021.
“I have a little history with the gradual erosion of ties to the church and felt compelled to join a serious protest,” Martin told me recently. “It had nothing to do with the subject of freedom of expression, except to the extent we expressed ours about abandoning a foundational tradition which we valued. My only regret about the letter was that we should not have introduced any reference to political correctness, as it was a red flag and really irrelevant to our objection.”
Having said all of that, it’s not hard for me to work with people whose worldviews don’t dovetail with mine. It would have been impossible to succeed in journalism or in academia as a Black man born in the Deep South who speaks with a severe stutter had I not repeatedly demonstrated that skill.
It wasn’t ideological differences that concerned me about Martin. I just didn’t believe he would be open to a sober process that would lead to a statement that carefully balanced valuing free expression and diversity and inclusion, principles too often pitted against each other—which is precisely what Davidsonians for Freedom of Thought and Discourse had done.
It was a particularly sensitive time on campus and around the country. COVID-19 restrictions were in full force, which exhausted students, faculty, and staff.
Additionally, some top conservative Davidson donors were withdrawing or considering withholding support from the college because of changes such as the removal of the requirement that the president be Presbyterian. Only about 20 percent of those donors believed it was clear Davidson was committed to protecting free speech, according to a survey from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. About 80 percent of that group wanted Davidson to adopt the Chicago Principles of Freedom of Expression, long considered the gold standard.
A subsequent survey of Davidson faculty and students I conducted with help from my colleague Sara Baugh showed there was confusion about what constituted free expression. The survey also showed a high level of self-censorship, though the reasons varied greatly, some of which reflected personality differences, preferences, and risk tolerance. Those distinctions often aren’t teased out in much-discussed national data from organizations such as the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, which assisted in our survey design.
More than 60 percent of students and three-quarters of Davidson faculty reported self-censorship. Some use the term to describe pressure from peers or officials to conform. One of my colleagues spoke of self-censoring after having his views demeaned as white supremacist.
Others say they want to avoid inadvertently making life difficult for others—they don’t want to drown out voices they believe have for too long gone unheard—which is better described as an effort to foster diversity than to chill unpopular or controversial speech. That’s why despite the self-censorship numbers, about 54 percent of students were extremely or somewhat satisfied about Davidson’s free expression environment, compared to about 24 percent who were extremely or somewhat dissatisfied.
Various students defined self-censorship in different ways. Some said they fear appearing ill-informed, which we found was a stronger factor at Davidson than what other surveys have found, including being judged harshly or unfairly by peers or faculty. Students said they feared “being wrong,” didn’t feel like they “knew enough about the topic to discuss,” didn’t want to “derail the conversation” or “make a fool of myself,” or felt they were “not qualified to speak on certain topics.”
Faculty had a variety of reasons to self-censor as well, including a “fear of causing self-censoring among students.” Others self-censored out of “concern about compromising the delicate fabric of the classroom community.”
But this point from a colleague illustrates the varied ways respondents may have defined “self-censorship”: “During Covid, with students in China, I did not want to put students at risk or encounter difficulties with accessing course material, and so avoided topics that would be red flags for the PRC gov.”
In that case, the professor was—rightly—prioritizing the safety of particularly vulnerable students. That’s “self-censorship” in only the broadest sense of the term, and an admirable form.
When you drill down into responses to self-censorship surveys, you find those variations. And yet, not enough of us drill down and are too quick to accept top-line results that suggest there is an unhealthy level of self-censorship on college campuses.
Other respondents to our survey said they self-censored because they feared they couldn’t “adequately articulate my point of view in a non-confrontational way”; “didn’t want to embarrass the student or appear biased”; or wanted “to avoid retraumatizing a student.”
That’s the environment in which we were trying to craft a free expression statement that could pass muster in the broader Davidson College community.
Simultaneously, maybe the most diverse student body in Davidson history—about 68 percent white compared to more than 90 percent when I was a student—was grappling with incidents of anti-Semitism, the outing of two students with strong white nationalist leanings, and protests that unfolded across the country after George Floyd’s murder.
In one such case, most players on the women’s basketball team knelt during the national anthem. A few players stood in a traditional pose. Each person who wanted to stand stood, each who wanted to kneel knelt. No one was sanctioned. But in a reflection of the campus environment, one of the standing players said she felt forced “to make a choice between compromising my beliefs in front of my family and friends or ‘out’ myself as someone holding different opinions.” It was yet another definition of self-censorship not everyone shared.
But in the midst of that tension, we made progress. To the surprise of many faculty colleagues, our committee was able to craft the statement in fairly short order. Each of us was committed to reinforcing free speech while protecting efforts to further diversify Davidson. Martin advocated the adoption of the Chicago Principles, but he became a consensus builder. He argued his views but was willing to compromise. We drew up multiple drafts and revised until we had cobbled together a version we could all embrace.
One line in particular proved difficult. We wanted to pointedly acknowledge the ways Davidson had historically fallen short of being inclusive and to emphasize that a true commitment to free expression is not possible without also recognizing the need for full inclusion. We toggled between using universal language or listing specific groups. The list of groups became unwieldy and long.
Our draft settled on this: “Individuals and groups have been marginalized and their voices muted based on race, ethnicity, gender, identity, ideology, or political affiliation.”
Still, some faculty reacted strongly. Feedback at times was harsh and questioned our commitment to the equality of all people on campus. We were called a few choice names. Critics argued that the list we settled on wasn’t explicit enough about all the groups facing marginalization. That stung, but we managed to avoid a defensive pose. We decided to listen to our colleagues through the pain rather than dismiss it as unworthy of our grappling and rethinking.
Anyone who plans to follow our lead should expect a similar response. Everyone will not see these as good-faith efforts, not because those critics are against free speech, expression, or academic freedom but because the tentacles of our dark past—when so many for so long were literally persecuted for wearing the wrong skin, practicing the wrong faith, and loving the wrong person, or being disabled even as those in power waxed eloquent about American principles—have extended into our present.
This is the crux of the tension. Increased diversity on campus isn’t a magic elixir to heal decades-deep wounds caused by discrimination of all kinds. Free expression efforts can come across as misguided at a time in which marginalized groups feel increasingly under attack.
Critics of these efforts are concerned that screams of “free speech” are a kind of Trojan horse to undo civil rights progress and to prevent further advancement because neo-Nazis, transphobes, and others shout “free speech!” while spreading hatred and further marginalizing the marginalized.
They’d rather we double down on inclusion and equity, and they don’t agree with the need to double down on free speech rights in the wake of complaints by groups like Martin’s, who they believe enjoy such rights more than most because of their proximity to power.
Given the proliferation of legislation banning trans kids from receiving treatment and the removal of books from library shelves that discuss race in a way that might discomfort white kids, their concerns aren’t to be ignored. We didn’t. We absorbed the criticism and adjusted, arriving at the amended version: “Individuals and groups have been marginalized and their voices muted based on race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender, disability, class, ideology, citizenship, or political affiliation.”
Standing firm on a commitment to free expression doesn’t require being rigid in the face of reasonable suggestions for change. We did not have to choose between principles.
That’s why the statement “will be valuable not only as a reference but also as a guide for those elsewhere seeing the value of tying freedom of thought to each school’s mission,” Martin said.
I’m in favor of doubling down on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts. But recent developments make clear the need to also double down on protecting free expression.
When I say “DEI” or “free expression,” I’m not referring to laws or particular policies but the principles for which they stand. For instance, I’m not married to mandating DEI statements during hiring or promotion procedures, but neither am I hostile to them.
But “free speech” can’t just be about what the First Amendment says, which is primarily about preventing the government from stifling speech it doesn’t like. That’s too narrow a purpose for an institution of higher learning. I appreciate movements such as the Deliberative Citizenship Initiative at Davidson, which are designed to have students, faculty, and staff discussing difficult, complex subjects in a deliberative manner across their differences, to bring more light than heat.
It can’t just be about that, however. Heated discussions, uncomfortable debates, and in-your-face protests must also be welcomed in a healthy free-expression campus environment. We should stand firm on the principles while grappling with the best ways to live them out and adjust as many times as necessary. When we don’t commit to that hard work, politicians are likely to lead the charge and undermine educational goals we hold dear.
The U.S. House recently passed a “parental rights” bill clearly designed to supercharge these disturbing censorship efforts, and North Carolina Republican Rep. Virginia Foxx was among its champions. Thirty-six states introduced what PEN America calls “educational gag orders” last year, and dozens more are on the table this year. Book banning is back, and 80 books are under review in Cumberland County, North Carolina, alone.
Anti–critical race theory legislation Gov. Roy Cooper previously vetoed has a better chance of passing this year, as legislative Republicans want to ban the promotion of 13 concepts in educational settings such as the idea that “particular character traits, values, moral or ethical codes, privileges, or beliefs should be ascribed to a race or sex or to an individual because of the individual’s race or sex.”
Advocates of such measures claim they are inoffensive and necessary. But it actually harms diversity efforts and undermines free expression. That’s what we tried to make clear in Davidson’s Commitment to Freedom of Expression statement—that these principles are not at odds but complementary. “The best way to ensure progression is to recognize that true inclusion and true free speech are interdependent.”
We’ve seen how such laws have played out elsewhere, where grade school teachers, librarians, and college professors have felt intellectually handcuffed, afraid to step over blurry lines of legality. There’s no reason to believe it would be different in North Carolina.
As disturbing as those developments are, they provide a way for us to show we are doubling down on free expression on campus because it’s an invaluable principle and not a Trojan horse to undo social progress.
If we passionately argue in favor of free expression statements but say little or nothing about the growing tide of censorship and other laws targeting historically vulnerable groups, you’ll know we weren’t serious, that our critics were right.
If we pit DEI efforts against free expression, you’ll know we weren’t serious, that our critics were right.
If we don’t do enough to listen to people through their well-earned pain, knowing that free speech can, has, and will be weaponized by bad actors to harm the vulnerable, you’ll know we weren’t serious, that our critics were right.
I had not planned to afflict my white student with the N-word that day in class. But in the moment, it became clear that if I didn’t challenge him, I would not be doing my job well.
My lesson plan didn’t call for it, nor did my syllabus. The flow of the discussion did. It was obvious I had an opening to provide students a vivid illustration of the difference between theory and practice, the difference between deploying a devil’s argument to win an academic debate and the complexity of real life. It’s easy to argue the abstract, hard to leave the pulpit and put into practice what you just preached.
I thought highly of that student and still appreciate his willingness to go where few students had. To this day, he remains the only student in any of my classes that I can remember uttering that word aloud in any of its variations or contexts. Had he self-censored out of fear of my being offended, he likely would not have spoken up and all of us would have been robbed of an invaluable lesson.
I wanted him to know that real life is messy in ways difficult to understand if you can’t walk around in another person’s skin for a little while. I wanted them all to know it, wanted them all to feel it. It mattered not what I personally thought of his argument—that the N-word was just a word and should be available for use by anyone in a non-hateful manner—which is similar to one Kennedy concludes with in his book, that there are circumstances during which it might be OK for white people to use that word, such as reading Huckleberry Finn aloud.
Admittedly, my opinion is subject to change. Some days, I’m with Oprah Winfrey who argues the word shouldn’t be used ever, period. On other days, I’m bopping my head to rapper Nicki Minaj or wishing that the producers of I Am Not Your Negro used the word James Baldwin really said.
On other days still, I feel a sense of grief and anger while reading articles about police officers using K-9s to maim Black people that include quotes like these: “They wanted a dog that would bite a nigger.”
I can’t tell if that wishy-washiness makes me the ideal person to teach such a lesson. I know that intent matters, that context is often a better determinative of a word’s meaning than a dictionary definition. I also know that for historical reasons, that word defies easily digestible parameters unlike any other in the English language. My white student’s reaction to his own utterance of a word he had argued should be treated like every other underscored the point—a point that could not have been made had he not been given the space to say the word in a setting designed to explore all its implications.
I have not repeated that exercise, which took place early in Donald Trump’s presidency, not because I’ve been afraid to, but because subsequent classes haven’t needed it. It’s not that more recent students couldn’t handle such a demonstration, just that I don’t believe it would have helped them.
Whatever you think of social justice movements that blossomed during the Trump era, it’s clear those movements convinced more young people to grapple with the complexity of race in ways they hadn’t previously. That was the original positive definition of woke—to be aware of systems and structures and struggles beyond your own or those directly affecting you—before that word was hijacked by those claiming the Ruby Bridges story should be removed from elementary classrooms.
Had I used that N-word demonstration in subsequent classes, it would have been more for shock than educational value. The word is too important, too powerful, to be used superficially. I spent a considerable amount of time before every class considering when I would use it or even if I’d read Kennedy’s title aloud.
Truth be told, I struggled mightily before settling on using that word in the first sentence of this piece. Numerous drafts did not include that word. I feared it would be misunderstood, that it would turn readers off from the outset.
I could not forget Twain’s admonition, though, that there is a major difference between the right word and almost right word. I understand why others might disagree but also why I must trust that I did the requisite thinking, researching, and grappling before making my final decision, the kind of process that professors everywhere should undertake every time they consider teaching a particularly sensitive lesson.
Professors are less likely to do that if there isn’t clarity that their institutions will back them in tough moments. Davidson’s Commitment to Freedom of Expression statement is an attempt to provide that clarity.
That doesn’t mean everyone at Davidson agrees. Some students and faculty remain convinced a too-permissive free expression environment can cause harm to vulnerable people. But defining “too-permissive”—as well as who gets to decide—is a tricky proposition. DEI officials at Davidson were among the most passionate and eloquent supporters of the statement, understanding quite clearly that free expression and inclusion are complementary principles. If you undermine one, you uproot the other.
Martin and I have continued speaking about how to further ground the principle of free expression at Davidson. We are doing that even as we continue to see the world very differently. He believes conservatives are not well represented on campus and face too much hostility. I believe those concerns are overblown. We disagree about the causes and effects of grade inflation.
We even disagree on whether a faculty member describing a colleague’s views as “white supremacist” is hate speech. He believed it was, until I explained that I’ve sometimes used that term to describe myself. I grew up in a region of the U.S. that implanted the idea that those with darker skin are lesser in my head and heart since birth. For most of my adult life, I’ve been struggling to rid myself of such nasty thinking, which has colored all of my relationships and affected my self-image.
“Am I deploying hate speech by referring to such thoughts as white supremacist?” I asked Martin.
He got it, remembering that context defines a word better than a dictionary.
“For me personally, the overriding value of our spirited exchange has been the opportunity to lay out what we think and respectfully consider ways in which we differ,” Martin said. “You and I are under no illusions that either of us can overwhelm the other into submission. It should be satisfying enough to know that considerate disagreement is still within us. As you have often and faithfully reminded us, this is what freedom of expression is all about.”
Issac Bailey graduated from Davidson College in 1995 and is now a professor of practice in communication studies. He is a veteran journalist who has won numerous regional and national writing awards and was a 2014 Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. He is the author of three books, including Why Didn’t We Riot? A Black Man in Trumpland.
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