Zero-tolerance policy for N-word lacks nuance, consistency with other school board decisions, says prof
A University of Windsor professor says the Greater Essex County District School Board's (GECDSB) decision to implement a zero-tolerance policy on the use of the N-word lacks nuance and is inconsistent with the way the board has dealt with other types of harmful language.
In a letter to parents, the GECDSB listed several types of behaviour that "will not be tolerated," including use of the N-word.
"Students are not allowed to say, write or read out any version of the N-word (including with the 'a' ending) and are not allowed to ask for a 'pass' from Black students to use the N-word," the board's letter to parents reads.
Natalie Delia Deckard, director of the Black Studies Institute at the University of Windsor and an associate professor of criminology, said while there is a positive to the policy, it misses the mark in some important ways.
"I think that a zero-tolerance policy for non-Black people using the N-word in public board schools is welcome, hard fought for, extremely important, brings the clarity around what is violence in the context of schools and what should be safe spaces," she said.
"I'm disappointed to see that it lacks the nuance to make a distinction between in-group conversation and out-group hate speech."
And that distinction is important, according to Deckard.
"As a person in the world and as a Black woman, I don't think that it should be used generally, however, I respect always the individual decisions of those who have been oppressed by a word — and only them — to decide when and whether to use it," she said.
"There is no such subtlety in this policy."
Reclaiming language and inconsistency
Deckard said it's important to understand the cultural context in which a word is used, and that for some groups using the word acts a reclamation.
"When we talk about who has been victimized, who has been on the oppressed side, and who has the right to contemplate reclaiming that language, we're talking about Black people," she said.
"When we talk about who exists in the history of having aggressed, having oppressed, having abused, we are talking about racialized white people. The fact that this statement makes no distinction between those two groups means that we should be concerned about ways that an ostensibly anti-racist movement could be used to increase the amount of over-disciplining, of over-criminalization of Black students in public board schools.
Deckard said the policy also lacks consistency with regard to policing language when it comes to other groups.
"I think through the ways in which the school board has handled misogynist speech and the way that it's used by non-men in a sort of reclamation," she said.
"How has the school board engaged with that distinction? And note that this zero-tolerance policy doesn't look anything like the ways that they've handled sexism."
In an email, a spokesperson for the board said the move has been generally accepted by staff and students.
"Everyone understands the need to enhance, create and maintain safe, welcoming learning and working environments free from discrimination," the email said.
It also said as part of its five-year anti-Black racism action plan, a report on progress will go to trustees in May.
Some Honourable W.C. Kennedy Collegiate students CBC spoke with said they support the ban, saying it's better for everyone if the word goes out of use.
But others said it is too restrictive for Black students who want to use the word in a friendly manner.
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.