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The Delicacy of Quoting The N-Word

Updated: Mar 1, 2021

The n-word is the kind of language that you would never imagine that you can hear in a liberal bubble like University College Maastricht (UCM); yet it still occurred.

According to an anonymous participant, in a session called The Historical and Structural Root of Mass Incarceration at the UCM Conference — an online conference organized by UCM students as parts of their academic works that was held on 20 January 2021, the n-word was used “casually” by the participants in the session. Nevertheless, the facilitators did not call out this behavior.

Regarding the matter, the workshop’s facilitators acknowledged the usage of the n-word was wrongful and they regretted not calling it out. But they denied that the n-word was used “casually”, as the above anonymous participant claimed. They further said that the n-word was used because it was a direct quote from the Bailey v. Alabama (1911) court decision.

The course coordinator of the UCM Conference, Dr Wilfred van Dellen, said that “decisions on the final cases and use of quotations were made rather late in the process of preparing the conference workshop … This also means the tutors involved were most likely not aware of it and therefore have not approached [them].” However, Dr Dellen has met with facilitators, along with their tutors, to discuss “the sensitivity of the matter” and advised them “to approach all participants and inform them about what happened and how it should have been different, and offer them the opportunity to further discuss in person if they want to.​” Dr Dellen informed that the facilitators “have done accordingly so.”

The UCM faculty has dealt with the incident. However, beyond the question of accountability, the issue raises another question: can a White person say the n-word if the word was in a direct quote or the usage of the word was for purely academic purposes? On the one hand, the historical context of the n-word can bring about distress for Black people. On the other hand, the academic standards usually dictate writers to be truthful to the original text in quotes.

White academics must understand that when they use the n-word, they contribute to the systemic racism against Black people, whether intentionally or accidentally. The social status of the two groups are not de facto equal. White bodies still have more social powers, or privileges, than Black bodies. When White bodies use the n-word in its full form, they contribute to the rigidification of that inequality of social powers between the two social groups.

One might argue that academic standards demand truthfulness to original text regardless of historical contexts and hence justify their use of the n-word despite being White. However, White academics’ use of the n-word is more a matter of racially-aware academic communication than a matter of academic quotation standards. Direct quotes are usually modified by academics, using square brackets (“[...]”) as an indication. By using the euphemism “the n-word” and not the n-word itself, academics can still stay truthful to the original text as readers can understand.

For example, this is a quote from How To Be An Antiracist by Dr Ibram X. Kendi: “He separated himself from ‘them [n-word]s’, racialized them, looked down on them.” As shown, the message of Dr Kendi remained intact and comprendable. This example once again proves that academic standards and racially-aware academic communication can be aligned.

Young White academics might be inexperienced in providing racially-aware academic communication. As experienced academics, university faculties have the responsibility to assist their students in language concerning racial relations in particular and marginalized groups in general. Specifically at UCM, the faculty can update its UCM Style Guide to include a section on quoting slurs concerning different marginalized groups. Your correspondent is unaware if similar proposals were made in the past; but the fact is that the current UCM Style Guide does not have any guidelines regarding such practice. Furthermore, according to Dr Dellen, the matter is neither “discussed in for example [Basiskwalificatie Onderwijs (BKO)] trainings (which new academic staff members participate in to obtain a teaching certificate for the [University Maastricht])” nor in “trainings for first year students.”

If academics decided to update their academic language conventions, it would not be the first time. According to the Center for the Study of Social Justice, it used to be the academic convention to not capitalise “black” and “white” when referring to social groups. Now, “Black” was capitalised to reclaim strength by adhering to the grammatical conventions of Black-dominated publishing institutions (i.e., ESSENCE and Ebony) magazines over those of White-dominated publishing institutions (i.e., The New York Times). In addition, “White” was capitalised because not doing so means suggesting “Whiteness as both neutral and the standard” and being of-colour is abnormal.

It is important to remember: words have power. Language has strength. They do not only convey messages but also construct reality. An inclusive and racially-aware language framework can help convey and construct inclusiveness and racial-awareness in not only UCM, or Maastricht University as a whole, but also academic institutions in general.


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