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Educating on ‘The Pain and The Power of The N-word’

By Collin Atwood

The N-word is heard or seen almost every day by people. It’s heard in songs, movies, written in books and plays and in some occasions used between friends. The word was originally used as a derogatory and hateful term in slavery. How it became a word that is used so loosely is a mystery.

On April 8, 2021 The Office of Multicultural Affairs at Springfield College presented “The Pain and The Power of The N-word.” The event consisted of panelists who touched on their personal experiences with the word and how they feel when they hear it.

The main panelist was Elizabeth Pryor, Associate Professor of History at Smith College. The rest of the panel was made up of four Springfield College students who are all very involved in social justice and diversity groups on campus.

Pryor’s research focuses on the study of the N-word and African American activism in the 19th century. She is popularly known for her TED Talk titled “Why it’s so hard to talk about the N-word” which was released in December of 2019 and now has over two million views on YouTube.

She also has a book called Colored Travelers: Mobility and the Fight for Citizenship before the Civil War which touches on the history of Black activists.

Her studies of the N-word began about 10 years ago when a student in her class used the word to reference the lecture that Pryor was giving. “When they said the word, it was a giant moment of reckoning for me,” Pryor said.

Prior to this incident, she made a promise to herself that she would never use the N-word again so that students in her class wouldn’t think it was appropriate for them to do so.

After realizing that she didn’t really know what the word meant or why it was being commonly used in casual conversation she decided it was time to educate herself more on the N-word. “I wanted to get to the root of that history,” Pryor said.

She touches on the fact that the N-word wasn’t always a slur and how it became one. Pryor notes how the notion that all Black people are automatically considered the N-word is false. “It becomes a slur, however, as Black people become free and the word latches on to them like a shackle,” Pryor said.

Later on in the event, the panel was presented with questions from the moderator, Adaeze Alaeze-Dinma, who is the Springfield College’s Coordinator of Student-Athlete Leadership Development and Sports Communications Assistant.

The first question asked by Alaeze-Dinma was, “When thinking about the pain and power of words and the complicated history of U.S. racism and unpacking the word, acknowledging this idea, do you think this will lead to change and equality in social justice movements?”

Pryor believes that talking about the word does help the fight for social justice, along with other panelists. She also talks with one of the panelists about the impact that current and past artists and musicians have had on the N-word.

“I think if more artists and rappers don’t use it, then it’ll be a better starting point,” said Brianna D’Haiti, a junior at Springfield College majoring in criminal justice and computer sciences. She is also a leader in the Cultural Connection Leadership program.

The panelists then discussed who should be using the N-word and when it should be used, if ever. “I think the other reason the N-word has stayed in power is because there is constant debate about who should use it,” said Sabrina Williams, Springfield College Student Trustee-Elect and President of the Women of Power club.

Pryor brings up a great point about how a person wouldn’t call their parents by their name because that’s not the relationship with those particular people. They would be called mom and dad. She relates this to the N-word by saying that you shouldn’t use the word if you don’t have the appropriate relationship to it and its history.

Dereck Webb, a senior at Springfield College and Vice president of the Men of Excellence club, follows that up by talking about the environment in which the word is used.

“Once the word is used from a person who is not in that community or is used with other members that are not involved in that community, I think that’s when the issue of it shouldn’t be said comes up,” Webb said.

Before you decide to use the N-word or if you ever do, make sure the person who you are talking to accepts it because not everyone is as comfortable with it as you might be.

“It’s not only understanding who you’re talking to, but understanding the backstory behind the word,” said Colby Wilson, a sophomore at Springfield College and Vice President-Elect for Men of Excellence.

If a person finds them self in a scenario where they are not sure if they should use the N-word, then that means they probably shouldn’t use it at all.

Always know who one is talking to and how they feel about the word before speaking. In the end, it might just be better to not use it at all.

It is important for everyone to be educated on the topic, so no one is confused about the history of the N-word and why people find it offensive. There is always more to learn.

“I’m still learning. I’m always learning,” Pryor said.

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