Like any other busy Monday, I was absentmindedly walking through the third-floor lounge area last week, barely noticing the people gathered on the sofas around me when a large, rowdy circle of male students caught my attention.
“You (N-word)” “‘Sup (N-word)”
The slur was thrown around carelessly, as if it were a mere name or greeting. I sighed in jaded disappointment, glancing at them, and continued rushing to my club meeting.
In retrospect, the fact that I could witness this and shrug off the minor discomfort to proceed with my day—and then forget about it for days—is shocking and frighteningly indicative of the extent to which I have been desensitized. The N-word was being repeated not once, not twice, but a countless number of times just within the five-second time frame during which I was within earshot. And not a single person, including myself, had intervened or pointed out the big red flag waving in our faces.
The normalization of slurs is a blatant, egregious problem that our school community fails to sufficiently address. Whether it is in casual dialogue with friends or rapping along to music, slurs are too often thrown around casually with an unapologetic disregard for their deep-rooted significance. The intentions behind using these slurs, despite students certainly knowing that they have historically and politically problematic meanings, may vary. Perhaps it feels “cool” to be doing something forbidden, or perhaps desensitization has made the appalling offensiveness feel less tangible.
Regardless of what the intentions are, however, the ruthless use of slurs reflects the privilege and ignorance that permeates our student body—the privilege to imitate AAVE and use the N-word without understanding the marginalization of African Americans or the privilege to us the F-word without considering the impacts on LGBT+ peers, to name a few. This phenomenon also demonstrates the reluctance of some students to recognize that there is a world beyond the SIS hallways; throwing around the N-word at college in the US will not elicit laughter, but will be treated as outrageously offensive, punishable behavior, as it should. But more importantly, just because there are no black or openly queer students in one’s immediate vicinity does not mean that such actions have no impacts. As much as school can feel like an insular bubble, where black history may seem like merely another AP US History textbook chapter, the repeated usage of slurs contributes to the normalization of anti-blackness and disrespect of their history. Homophobic slurs and misogynistic slurs, likewise, belittle the experiences of minorities and reinforce the message that it is acceptable to remain ignorant of the systemic oppression that makes such slurs pernicious on a societal level.
Of course, only a portion of the student body engages in actively using these slurs. However, many of us are complicit as bystanders, laughing along when friends say the N-word or staying “neutral” and “non-political” by ignoring the situation. The very act of refusing to challenge the phenomenon is to enable, or even encourage, its perpetuation. As friends and peers in this community, and as students working to uphold TIGER values, we all share the obligation to recognize and address this issue. Yes, it is unrealistic to expect that everyone intervenes in every possible scenario, especially given the fear of being outed as “too sensitive” for showing genuine concern for such social issues. But at the very least, we should make an effort to not laugh along or point the problem out to friends.
While some teachers already do address this issue, the school could likewise create opportunities for educating students to uphold global citizenship as well. Implementing a required political awareness workshop or program will demonstrate that the school is committed to actively encouraging an atmosphere of greater sensitivity, though it may not prove immediate effects on student attitudes. In addition, students should be held more accountable for such disrespectful language and perpetuation of blatant insensitivity through more strictly enforced consequences. While the fear of retribution should ideally not be the primary reason for basic respect, in conjunction with proactive educational efforts—like a mandatory workshop or session—enforcing consequences is a reasonable and realistic solution. High school is a precedent to and microcosm of the real world; by not holding individuals accountable and sufficiently educating them to self-reflect, we contribute to many students’ disillusionment in society as permanently unjust. If we want to promote global citizenship, it is crucial to create a school environment that models a society in which minorities are heard and respected, while those who ignorantly abuse their privilege face consequences and are taught to change.