By Rev. Irene Monroe
What should have been an enriching classroom engagement turned instead into a public outrage that’s now prompting an outside investigation.
On January 10, history teacher Mr. Kevin Dua at Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School invited the School Committee and other elected officials to participate in his students’ final project. The project titled, “RECLAIMING [N-word] v. Cracker: Editing Racial Context In/For Cambridge, ” examines how the power of words – through laws, protests, and media since the Civil War- has shaped U.S. racist language.
Dua, who is black, used the full spelling of the n-word in the project title and also used the word during his class discussion. School Committee member, Emily Dexter, who is white, dropped the full version of the n-word, too. In her attempt to explain the filters that Cambridge Public Schools puts on its school-issued Chromebooks and Web networks, censoring students from viewing objectionable Internet content, Dexter wanted students to know the n-word is blocked.
However, as a professional educator, Dexter’s pedagogical style in the classroom was not seen as a teaching moment, but instead, it was experienced as an insensitive and out of control rant.
“So, if you pick up your textbook, and you look in the index, and you want to know, if the word ‘n-word,’ there are a lot of textbooks that you’re probably aren’t going to see the word. So, somebody has decided for you that word is not something that they want young people to have access to; and, you can decide whether or not you think that’s good or not. But the filters aren’t just on computers; the entire world is filtered for you. And since you’re in a school, that’s done by adults.”
Many are now asking should Dexter remain on the Cambridge School Committee, since both her tone deafness and non-apology inflamed rather than inform and soothe the situation. “Most students expressed disappointment, offensiveness, and frustration, and discontent with the insincerity of her attempted apology” was written in a signed January 28 letter to the Cambridge School Committee by students and faculty of CRLS. The Boston Globe reported that “Dua said Dexter’s apology was not sincere enough. He said she tried to explain herself for 10 minutes before apologizing for using the word.”
Sadly, Dexter didn’t recognize the deleterious impact her words had on several Cambridge communities once word spread beyond CRLS, to parents and throughout Cambridge’s black community and beyond. Immediately following the incident, Jane Donohue wrote a January 11 letter to Superintendent Kenneth Salim and Mayor Marc McGovern calling for Dexter’s resignation.
“As a white educator and CPSD parent, I feel sickened about your use of the n-word yesterday during a CRLS class discussion on censorship…Your presence on the school committee is now a concrete example of white ignorance and cultural insensitivity at the highest level of our district. How can staff members be held accountable for creating a “rigorous, joyful and culturally responsive environment and violates it? Given our district’s strategic plan, increases in hate incidences against student and staff, and our ongoing failure to deliver equitable access to all of our students, we cannot afford to have you at the leadership table. Please resign.”
Dexter didn’t respond to the incident after both Ms. Milner, Dean of the History Department and Dua spoke to Dexter about her remarks immediately following class. She only responded to the incident after Superintendent Kenneth Salim released a statement to the CPS community. Salim, who is black, told the Boston he felt “uncomfortable” hearing Dexter use the n-word.
Although Dexter’s response was tepid, slow, and perfunctory, School Committee member Manikka Bowman immediately filed a motion to investigate the incident since Dexter’s apology further upset the students. In support of Bowman’s motion Councilor E. Denise Simmons wrote Cambridge School Committee stating, “In 2019, there is simply no excuse for having utilized such language and then hiding behind some variant of “I didn’t realize how hurtful this might be” to try to make amends. In 2019, in this community, that kind of ignorance cannot and should not be excused. I am not calling for condemnation, but I very much want us to harness this individual’s terribly poor word choice to spark some very necessary reflection.”
The n-word is firmly embedded in the lexicon of racist language that was and still is used to disparage African Americans. The word does not eradicate its historical baggage and its existing troubling racial relations among Blacks and between Whites and Blacks. For example, Salim conveyed he also felt a “level of discomfort” when Dua used the word. Many blacks, myself included, feel reclaiming and using racist words like the n-word dislodges the word from its historical context and makes us all insensitive and arrogant to the historical injustice done.
Dexter, however, doesn’t stand alone in this kerfluffle. Fellow committee member Patricia Nolan, who is also white, attempted to “whitesplain” Dexter’s stance. Bowman, who is black, clapped back that she, too, is tone deaf.
The n-word re-inscribes and perpetuates ideas and assumptions about race we consciously and unconsciously transmit generationally. Dexter’s non-apology for her use of the n-word suggests she has become insensitive and numb in the use and abuse of the power and currency this racial epithet still has; thus, thwarting the daily struggle many of us Cambridge residents work hard at in trying to ameliorate race relations.