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Teaching the History of Racist Language

Research & Inquiry

Prof. Elizabeth Stordeur Pryor explores the complexities of talking about the N-word without doing harm


Published March 17, 2021

Associate Professor of History Elizabeth Stordeur Pryor will never forget the first time she heard a student use the N-word.

It was in 2010, in a class about the Civil War and the period surrounding it. Part of her lecture was about the bias that African Americans in the 1850s sometimes exhibited toward Chinese immigrants. In an attempt to connect to the subject, a white student raised her hand and then quoted a joke from the movie Blazing Saddles that uses both that epithet and an epithet describing Chinese people. Pryor froze. After getting through class that day, she asked all her students never to use the word itself, even when citing texts. But she knew it wasn’t that simple. This American word is too historically important, violent and complex to be banned without explication.

“This is a word that gets harnessed and used when Black people move through the body politic. It is an attack on Black freedom.”

So began Pryor’s long, thoughtful process about how to engage with the N-word—as an educator, as a biracial woman and as a daughter of the legendary comedian Richard Pryor (who had his own journey with the incendiary word, which he describes in the concert film Richard Pryor: Live on The Sunset Strip). After the classroom incident—and following much thought and study—Pryor decided to no longer use the word herself, though she doesn’t censor it in materials where it appears. Over the years, she’s taken her thinking—and that of her students—far beyond the simple response of “just never say it.” In her Smith colloquium The History of the N-Word, she digs deep into the history of the word and the ways in which it has been weaponized. She makes room for the emotions that are stirred up whenever it appears. She believes that the deepest learning happens through this brave engagement and rigorous examination.

How did you develop your attitude about dealing with the word when it is present in a pedagogical setting?

It wasn’t an overnight matter for me. People are very polemical about it, and I’m never polemical with my students. Some people [say that not using the word] is an attack on freedom of speech. I actually think that what the N-word does is make everybody slow down and pay attention. So I don’t see [choosing not to use the word] as an issue about freedom of speech. Quite the contrary. I actually think it promotes free speech in the sense of creating an intellectual environment where as many people as possible want to and can participate in that environment.

So, when you encounter the word in a text, what do you do?

I tell students, you’re going to hear it. I’m not going to X it out of [the film] 12 Years a Slave, because it’s in the movie. There are articles and books that we read where it’s present. But I don’t use it in my PowerPoints anymore. I do “n***er” in my PowerPoints.

Pryor’s TEDx talk on the N-word now has more than 2 million views.

That’s a decision that I came to after teaching my first iteration of the course. What I heard over and over again from students was that they wanted to be able to engage with the ideas without having to get in the muck of what the word was actually doing. Sitting in a room with that word shining in their faces prevented some of the deeper work that they actually wanted to do.

Do you believe it should never be used by anyone?

People often say to me, “Should there be a no-tolerance policy about saying the word?” That stuff scares me, because that’s when you end up with people not teaching James Baldwin and people not teaching my father, and that is not what we want. The idea is not to foreclose on people who have ever said the N-word. The idea isn’t that students can never hear it. But I’m trying to model a kind of practice around it. It has everything to do with the fact that students of all races come to me underqualified to talk about racism and race in the United States. The history is very understudied and important for people to understand, that really it is not an attack on enslaved people. This is a word that really gets harnessed and used when Black people start to move through the body politic. [It] is an attack on Black freedom.

What do you think about the argument that it’s sometimes used subversively, like in hip-hop?

In those cases, what I really think is happening is that the word is doing work in opposition to white racism, and that instead of getting rid of the word from hip-hop songs, or from Black art, that perhaps instead there should be equity and social justice, so that the word no longer has meaning for Black people. It wouldn’t be subversive to use it because there would be social justice and equity.

What scholarship are you doing beyond teaching?

I’m writing a pedagogical historical memoir, framed by my experience as a biracial woman in the United States who is also the daughter of comedic icon Richard Pryor. And I’ve made the decision not to use the word in the book. Part of the reason is because I think what jams people up [in teaching] is that when they see Baldwin, or Junot Díaz or others [using the word], they don’t want to change the words of these authors. They want to be true and authentic to that literature, and I understand it, but I didn’t want people to necessarily have to grapple with that with my new work. So it’s just an experiment, honestly, because my feelings around the word are ever-changing and evolving.

Martha Southgate ’82 is the author of four novels, most recently The Taste of Salt.

This story appears in the Spring 2021 issue of the Smith Alumnae Quarterly.

Photograph by Tony Luong