On Feb. 27, UVic’s African and Caribbean Students’ Association (ACSA) held its second annual Black History Month panel discussion in the SUB upper lounge. The discussion started with a screening of a video ACSA filmed last semester, which shows UVic students and community members speaking their thoughts on the use of “the N word.”
The mediator of the discussion, fourth-year UVic computer science student Francis Harrison, touched on current issues regarding the use of the word, including a newly proposed rule in the NFL to penalize teams 15 yards for use of the racial slur on the field, and asked questions to the five panellists, who then each took turns answering with their opinions.
The panellists at the discussion included Dr. Francis Adu-Febiri (Camosun College professor, Sociology), Dr. Nat Markin (UVic professor, Political Science), Dr. Lisa Gunderson (Camosun College professor, Psychology), Boma Brown (fourth-year UVic Economics and Political Science student), and Emmanuel Okee (Camosun College student, Psychology). The first question asked the panellists about their personal experiences with the word, which lead to many different responses, ranging from not much at all to vivid childhood memories of when panellists first recognized the word and the connotations that are associated with it, including Gunderson’s story of a cross burning at her parents’ home in the U.S.
The second question asked the panellists if they think it should be offensive to call someone by the racial slur. The answer by all, not surprisingly, was yes. Adu-Febiri seemed to suggest that if eventually the word becomes just a word, that may be natural. Some felt that by allowing the word to be de-stigmatized, it removes some historical significance that younger generations should be aware of.
“I don’t think you can reclaim a word that was not yours in the first place,” said Okee.
One of the ideas raised was the role of hip-hop in the current use of the word. A Nicki Minaj music video was screened, which had more than one instance of the N word, along with two automatic rifles being fired into the air by the singer. Brown argued that the video may be empowering to the artist and a calculated move by Minaj, rather than, as Gunderson argued, a contribution to the current status quo of the word. In addition to this, it was remarked that musical artists with power should change the style of music and make a statement to the succeeding generations.
The topic of education was also among the evening’s discussions. In schools in the United States, said one panelist, African American history begins with slavery. Panel speakers disagreed with this way of teaching, saying that the curriculum should begin with African history. Otherwise, they said, it implies to young African American people that they started as slaves, and cuts out the rich history of Africa before people were forced into slavery. Panelists encouraged students to step up and ask their institution for diverse curricula, including psychology of minorities, for example.
A recurring point from all the panellists was the need for the current generation to educate their peers and change the direction of the usage of the N word within a changing knowledge economy that has space to do so. If the word is used as a term of endearment, a way to reclaim it for African Americans (as noted in a short clip shown featuring Jay-Z discussing this issue with Oprah), Gunderson suggested the idea that hip-hop and rap stars should use the word “brother” in their lyrics.
Most of the panellists said that reclaiming the word isn’t a good way to make things better. Furthermore, Brown raised concern about gender equality in relation to African Americans using the word to one another. It may sometimes seem okay between men, but as Gunderson and Brown said, it can be seen as even less appropriate to women.
The decision for this year’s panel discussion was made last September and, as Francis said after the talk, they wanted to do something to educate people and raise awareness about the existing state of the word. The Feb. 27 panel seems to have achieved that goal, but as noted by all the panellists, there has to be more of a discussion and an increase in education surrounding the word to make any change possible.