Universities don’t have to choose between honouring historical injustices and protecting the communities still affected by these histories today — they have the power to do both.
An opinion piece in McMaster’s student newspaper The Silhouette detailed one student’s experience with sitting in a class where a racial slur was used in a historical context.
As a black woman on campus, the use of a slur that specifically references the violent histories of slavery and institutionalized hatred against black people left her shocked and fearful.
Understanding why they may be important in the context of a history class — where a holistic education includes doing justice to the horrors of the past — is necessary. That being said, not all students can be expected to turn a blind eye when these slurs trigger negative responses and generate inaccessibility in their education.
If a historical racial slur used in a classroom setting could make education inaccessible to some students and a one-line warning doesn’t hurt anyone, why wouldn’t it be common practice?
By using racial slurs in educational contexts such as a history class, we can generate positive conversations about what these words mean, both in history and why they’re still relevant and evoke pain for some communities today.
But the cost for many students may be being left with a much more negative experience that prevents them from rationalizing the use of the slur in the context of the class, let alone confronting a professor about its use.
Some students may have to leave the classroom and face fear about coming to class. Some may miss their chance to learn simply for the use of a word that could be acknowledged without being said.
In that case, it’d also make sense to claim that racial slurs don’t belong in the classroom at all.
But the least that can be done is a warning.
Doing away with warnings makes the assumption that all students in any given classroom are at the same level of experience. It dismisses differences in experience, history and background. It fails to accommodate for those who are impacted by the ongoing nature of historical trauma. After all, protecting its students is a significant responsibility for a university.
A warning at the beginning of class is an easy fix to what could be a debilitating trigger for a student, who came to learn and to be accepted by their university.
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