When Bob Nowell, a white professor in the department of English and mass communication at N.C. Central University used the n-word in class one morning in late March, it offended a number of his students and sparked a debate about when the word could be used, and by whom.
“It was alarming because I didn’t understand what it had to do with what we were discussing in class,” said a female student who asked not to be identified.
“Some students were laughing, but it wasn’t really funny to me, and when a student walked out, I knew I wasn’t the only one that felt that way,” she said.
According to the students in his law and ethics class, Nowell had been discussing an article in their textbook about the popular 90s sitcom, “Martin,” and its portrayal of black stereotypical behavior, when Nowell used the word.
“The book doesn’t use the word ‘nigger,’ but he was reading and explaining how different shows that have black people in them have all these black stereotypes,” said another female student who asked not to be identified.
Nowell was approached twice to comment for this story and declined on both occasions.
Other students say they weren’t offended by Nowell’s use of the word and were disgusted by their classmates’ reaction.
“I mean, come on man. Every hip- hop song has ‘nigger’ in it,’” said a male student who also asked not to be identified. “I knew he wasn’t directing the comment toward anyone personally. He was relating it to academics — he was teaching.”
Mass communication junior Darryl Kennedy, a non-traditional student who has taught at Durham Technical Community College, defended Nowell.
“Nowell was using this term … to describe the negative effects ... of this word,” said Kennedy.
“We need to understand first of all that a classroom is where we learn, and if we can’t say things that have been used to reference anyone in a negative way, then we are stunting our growth,” Kennedy said.
Robert Stiefvater, a white associate professor of physical education at NCCU, said, “We need to make the distinction [of whether] we’re feeding into the power of the word or discussing the word as a concept.
“It’s a word. The reason it’s offensive is because of what it represents, and that’s something that should be discussed by anyone, especially in academia,” said Stiefvater.
Carlton Wilson, who is black and the chairperson of the history department, had a slightly different perspective on the use of the word.
“This word is used so widely — some people think it’s OK to be used all of the time, but I’m not one of them because I understand the connotations and misuses of it,” said Wilson. “But clearly, in academic settings, words that are offensive to certain groups are used to make points.”
When asked if he thought it was appropriate for a white professor to use the word, Wilson said that it was acceptable but with the stipulation that it be used in a “teaching moment,” and only to an audience that would understand the context.
Lynne Jefferson, a black instructor in the department of English, said that sometimes the word is found in literature.
If the word is used in direct quotes from literature, then she found it acceptable to use “every now and again.”
Jefferson had a different viewpoint regarding black people using the word in reference to each other outside the classroom.
“I think that one or two things happen when we use that term excessively: the kids think that it is a term of endearment, though historically it has had negative connotations, and people begin to use the term with such ease that when white people say it they think that it is OK because we call each other it,” said Jefferson.
Jeffrey Elliot, chair of the political science department, who is white, found the situation regarding Nowell’s use of the word, and the use of the word in general, disturbing.
“It’s wholly inappropriate for a white or African-American faculty member to use that word in the classroom or outside of it,” said Elliot.
“If you are trying to convey a particular point, there are other ways to prove the point without using a word that is patently offensive,” said Elliot, adding that instructors’ duty is to elevate the standards of excellence in classrooms and to “teach people to view themselves in a different way.”