Tim Brown believes that, “Cultural sensitivity should be a block of granite in the foundation of our education system, taught annually and comprehensively.”
Riley Cooper and Paula Dean have recently made headlines for reckless use of the word “nigger.” Both were admonished by society at large and their respective professional organizations because of what the “N” word stands for. Usually when a high profile citizen uses the “N” word, our country is sent into a tailspin of debate and rhetoric about the “N” word. This time was no exception. It’s often cited that black people use it in casual conversations; that black people own the word and are the only ones allowed to wield it. The casual use of the “N” word by black people always leads to a larger discussion about its acceptability for use by the populace at large. Black people have a hard time understanding why white people want to use the word and can’t understand the history behind it.
We should all take into account what growing up in the United States means in 2013. While institutional segregation was rendered illegal a generation ago, citizens still live in separate neighborhoods for the most part. We can always identify what part of town more black people populate, more Hispanic people live in, or where more white people congregate. This is simple science after all, people tend to gather and live around those who are more like them. Because demographically we remain segmented, our knowledge and awareness of cultures and perspectives different than our own remain that way as well.
A bi-product of all of that continued division is that exposure to different cultures is often a voluntary act, and if we don’t seek self-actualization, then we remain personally and wholistically ignorant. It’s still not uncommon for a person to live a lifetime and only meet people of other ethnicities in passing and/or have very few personal relationships with them.
A lot of our comprehension of society comes from popular culture and education. Popular culture, it seems, often takes precedence over our education, with our entertainers garnering millions and our school systems hemorrhaging money. With the emphasis on standardized testing performance and vocational prep, our schools have a skeletal curriculum which only serves to weaken our general consciousness. A staple of our classrooms should be cultural sensitivity, which leads back to why discussions on “nigger” remain incomplete.
The biggest element that’s missing from the debate on the “N” word’s usage is WHY it’s important not to use it in the first place. Instructions without context are often empty and non-substantive. A white person won’t have the same level and understanding of black history that black people do nor will it have the same salient effect. Additionally, even black people have generationally lost an understanding of US racial history and its cause and effects. Historical figures that were once prominent on the lips of anyone who knew black history, like James Baldwin, Malcolm X and Marcus Garvey, are now rendered footnotes in popular cognizance. Continuous and comprehensive cultural education would reduce the confusion and convolution of the “N” word debate since we would all have a mandated point of reference from which we could operate from in our knowledge base.
We would collectively know as a society that the “N” word was once a weapon used by white people in concert with institutionalized and systematic oppression in the US. When black people were in danger of being lynched and had to use separate and unequal facilities, the word “nigga” was a verbal assault meant to underscore the fact that people of color were second class citizens. It pierces at the soul and draws strength from the legacy of slavery, when black people were property and treated no better than the inanimate objects or animals that white people owned. The “N” word was never used as flattery from black to white, but only meant to demean and reduce. As a country that still feels the residual effects of slavery, the Civil War, and Jim Crow, it would cease to be a debate because we would all know that it’s unacceptable, and that “N” word usage doesn’t allow the wounds from that period to heal, no matter the color of the users skin.
In Riley Cooper’s case, he was fined and ordered to go to sensitivity training. Had he only been fined, then its likely he would still use the “N” word, being very careful not to get caught. However, the training that he receives, in addition to the fine, might give him the extra perspective necessary to potentially strike the “N” word from his vernacular completely. That is the importance and value of education.
Cultural sensitivity should be a block of granite in the foundation of our education system, taught annually and comprehensively. We should include information from all descendants of our great nation, including the Irish, Muslims, American Indians, homosexuals, and all other people who populate our states. Our United States history is very comprehensive, and the current narrative only allows for a fraction of the different perspectives that shape our collective awareness. This is no different than Spanish is being taught in a lot of schools from preschool through high school nationally due to the practicality of impact on our nation.
Teaching cultural sensitivity would have multiple benefits on our society in both the short and long term. We would have a country of more well-rounded citizens who understand that our strength and future as a nation lies in how we can come together. Being more socially aware would help us to see that violence and poverty should not be tolerated but combated in all forms. We would be remiss to label issues as “black” problems or “white” problems because we would understand that there is a micro- and macro-impact to us all. For example, we would be able to see the connections between social programming, crime, abortion, and the war on drugs without literally coloring the issues.
In sum, this is not to excuse Riley or Paula (though Paula Deen was alive during the Civil Rights movement so she had a first-hand account), but to provide a lens through which we can view and derive context. And more importantly, this provides us with a platform to discuss solution-oriented change. How can we eradicate ourselves from these sorts of problems in the future? The answer usually lies in education; when we know better, we do better.
Photo: Editor B/Flickr