On Nov. 12, students from various ethnic backgrounds filled a Wilden classroom for this week’s Black Student Association (BSA) meeting. The topic for the night was on the use of the ‘N’ word and when—if ever—it is okay to use.
“It’s an issue that we face, and it’s a controversial topic,” said vice president of BSA and senior biblical studies major Rami Nious Flores. “We just thought that it was a good thing to start a discussion about and get people talking about it.”
This was senior biology major Ellen Emery’s first BSA meeting.
“When I heard what the topic of discussion would be at this BSA meeting, I was intrigued,” Emery said. “I really wanted to listen to the discussion because [use of the ‘N’ word] is highly controversial in our society. It seems as though a double standard has developed for when it is acceptable to use, and I was interested to hear the discussion from a perspective different than may own.”
The meeting started with some of BSA’s board members explaining the myths related to the word, such as “If I say it, I’m cool,” “All black people use it,” “It’s okay [to say it] if I’m singing/rapping lyrics to a song” and “I can say it because I am black.”
The group then discussed the history of the word, explaining that it was established as a derogatory term in the 1800s during the time of slavery in America. White southerners mispronounced the word ‘negro,’ which meant black person, and turned it into the more offensive word that exists today.
Further conversation then revolved around how the word is used in pop culture, specifically in rap songs and how even celebrities like chef and cooking show host Paula Deen faced dire consequences after being caught using the word. BSA then showed a video of Dr. Neal Lester, an English professor at the University of Alabama, talking about the word and what he thinks it is truly about.
“The ‘N’ word is about an identity,” Lester said in the video. “It’s being born into an identity that was somehow expected to be uncivilized, un-educatable and buffoonish.”
Later, the meeting shifted into an open forum and discussion with board members acting as moderators who would ensure the conversations went smoothly.
Before it started, president of BSA and senior English major Maurice Johnson laid down some ground rules, emphasizing that it was a safe place for people to express their opinions, and that it was okay to disagree with each other in order to gain a deeper understanding of the topic.
For the next hour and a half, students sat in a circle on chairs, tables and the floor while listening to each other discuss various aspects of the ‘N’ word.
“As I listened to others share in the discussion, I gained new insight into multiple perspectives surrounding the use of the ‘N’ word,” Emery said. “I was thankful that all perspectives are welcome in BSA. Even if we disagreed with one another, it was clearly in love and support.”
Even close to the meeting’s end, many people were still waiting for a chance to say what was on their mind. Many of them stuck around after the meeting to continue the conversation in smaller groups.
“It was definitely a good conversation,” BSA member and senior mathematics major Isaac Lyles said. “There were good points made, and I was happy to hear what other people were saying. But it’s a long conversation, and it’s been going on for years, and it will still be an ongoing discussion.”
In general, most of the attendees had a general consensus about the ‘N’ word: Don’t use it at all. Many believed that African Americans should set an example by not using the term even when referring to their friends. Additionally, other races should feel more of a need to interject when they hear the term being used. However, at the meeting, a few decided that they still wanted to use the word. The other students’ response was that everyone has the right to free speech, as long as they remember that their actions can have consequences.
In terms of continuing the discussion, Flores hopes to one day find a larger platform in which to facilitate those conversations on campus.
“I know it’d be a long shot, but [I’d love to] do something like this during chapel or maybe a bigger forum,” Flores said. “Even though ethnic organizations are open to everybody, not everyone comes, so I feel like open forums would work to reach a bigger audience.”
BSA meets every Thursday night at 7:30 p.m. in Wynn 130.