Ikram Abdinur recalls how uncomfortable she felt when her Grade 10 teacher told the class to use the racial slur she'd always known as an insult to black people, while studying To Kill A Mockingbird.
Six years later, Abdinur is among the advocates asking educators to teach the history and harm of the N-word in such books while ensuring lessons in the classroom don't marginalize black students, the way she felt in high school.
"It was pretty uncomfortable but I also didn't think I could say anything to make it stop," said the 21-year-old university student, who was one of the only kids of colour in her Edmonton classroom at the time.
"The word is so hurtful, it carries such a punch."
Abdinur, who was born in Toronto and grew up in Alberta, remembers feeling isolated and powerless. She noticed fellow classmates using the N-word more frequently in group discussion and more freely outside the classroom.
One day she was greeted in the hall by a friend who said: "Hey my n----". Abdinur's hands shook as she insisted he take it back.
"Classrooms were someplace that were very comfortable for me before, and then they just never felt that way afterwards," she said.
'Not a safe environment'
Youth advocate Ahmed Abdulkadir said he's heard similar stories recently from students and parents in Edmonton, St. Albert and Sherwood Park.
In some cases teachers have dismissed concerns raised by black students about approved use of the racial slur in class, he said, adding it has legitimized inappropriate use of the N-word.
It's the reason Abdulkadir, who oversees a youth coalition tackling systemic racism, is meeting with Edmonton Public Schools officials Friday.
"This is not a safe environment for our kids," said Abdulkadir, who also intends to meet with Edmonton Catholic board and Education ministry officials.
"We're asking for [educators] to be conscious and be sensible and sensitive to the needs of the black community. Teach To Kill a Mockingbird but put it in context. Teach the history behind the N-word. That's why you are there. Protect our kids. Make them feel they are safe in your classes."
Abdulkadir said failure to create inclusive classrooms can create conflict between students, students and their teachers, or even lead to students dropping out.
He points to the 'Make It Awkward' anti-racism campaign that arose in response to the N-word being hurled at actor Jesse Lipscombe on an Edmonton street.
"Where is the best place to teach hate is not acceptable, other than the school?" he asked, suggesting the possibility of introducing guidelines and developing curriculum around the N-word.
Abdinur, who co-founded the Global Indigenous Youth Coalition — an anti-racism collective — said she felt validated but also saddened when she recently heard stories from other black youth, similar to her own.
She advised teachers to ask black students what they are most comfortable with, recalling how much better she felt when another high school teacher told them not to use the racial slur and insisted they say "N-word" instead.
"This is something that's painful and something that has real-world consequences when the kid leaves the classroom," said Abdinur. "Understand that they face racism when they do leave the classroom, so you really don't want to be another factor."
'Teachers use professional judgment'
Alberta's school curriculum contains no specific guidelines to address racial slurs in literature such as To Kill a Mockingbird or Huckleberry Finn. Education department officials would not say whether it's something under consideration in a curriculum review now underway.
"Teachers use their professional judgment to select appropriate teaching approaches and resources that best meet the needs of their students," wrote Lindsay Harvey, press secretary to Education Minister David Eggen.
"In historical texts/examples, there may be language or terminology present that is authentic to the historical context in order to respect the true nature of the time period and perspectives, so that they can be studied in age appropriate contexts/ways. Cautions are provided for teachers with such resources when they are on an authorized list. "