The N-word bellowed three times from a microphone, catching the attention of passersby in the middle of a busy lunchtime in the Student Union Building. But that was the point. It was the opening line for a candid conversation on the use of the racial term in modern culture.
“What’s Up, My ’N’” was part of a monthly Civility Speaker Series sponsored by the UNM Civil Campus Council and African American Student Services to create a safe space for students to express their opinions and emotions about the use of the N-word in contemporary society.
The panel discussion was led by students Ashley Davis, Brandi Wells and educational consultant, Mark Worthy. After explaining the necessity for dialogue concerning this complex issue, several UNM students and employees, as well as Albuquerque community members, participated in a Q&A session.
Cinnamon Burton, the UNM freshman who found the N-word written on a white board outside her dorm room, shared how the incident made her feel, and how it has changed her perspective on using the word casually with her friends.
A city librarian spoke of hearing the N-word at other institutions which was presented in a host of ways: historical, informal greetings, hip hop, and said that she found it offensive in most contexts.
UNM isn’t alone in struggling with the N-word and its use. Recognizing the need to uncover the many layers and complexities of the word, Neal A. Lester, Foundation Professor of English and Director of Project Humanities at Arizona State University actually taught the first college–level class designed to explore the word in its entirety.
"When I first started talking about the idea of the course,” Lester said, “I had people saying, ‘This is really exciting, but how can you have a course about a word?’ It was clear to me that the course, both in its conception and in how it unfolded, was much bigger than a word. It starts with a word, but it becomes about other ideas and realities that go beyond words."
Hallee Kells, Student Affairs specialist, in the Dean of Students office wants people to know that the panel discussion was not a reactive measure to the recent incident in the residence halls, but rather a continued forum for civil discussion on controversial issues. “The event had been planned since December,” she said, “but the timing of it in relation to the Res Halls incident seemed to lend itself to another discussion organically because students, staff, faculty and community members needed to express their feelings about the recent issue.”
Director of African-American Student Services, Scott Carreathers, was pleased with the event. “We, as a university, must continue to work together to create a culture of tolerance and security, and to insure every student has the right to an education free of discrimination,” he said.
For more information, visit the CommUNITY campaign, Civil Campus Council and Civility Speaker Series.