Could the N-word stop a book from being shared?
Last week, just a few days before the 25th anniversary of the national holiday celebrating the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I finally released an audacious collaborative ebook on Scribd.com; a collection of 34 essays by students from my fall 2010 racism course at Baruch College-CUNY. We unanimously chose to call the ebook of op-eds about racism COULD YOU BE THE BIGGER NIGGER? But the title has been causing a little anticipated controversy, and some unexpected concern.
Since my first ebook on Scribd had reached over 1100 ppl fairly quickly over the last 9 months, and my 2nd collaboration with a group of students in my anthropology course a year ago reached almost 5000 in less than 6 months, I was hoping people could trust me and read the ebook to get the point explained below but it was clear from early responses that some change was needed. But I couldn’t undermine the students’ vote.
Then I got a Facebook message from a trusted friend from Nashville whom I’ve never meet in person. We adore one another on Facebook so I wanted to respond to his concern. After reading the ebook, he wrote:
i’ll be honest … i posted the link to the essays on racism that you had on your wall. i struggled greatly doing it because of the title but i felt like the value far outweighed my reservations. anyway ...
As a result of Jim Palmer’s message, last Monday I made a little tweak to the title so it could be read as COULD YOU BE BIGGER? without betraying the students’ decision. Someone reminded me not to “don’t judge a book by its title” and that gave me the opening needed for this post to launch the ebook. Here goes…
Don’t Judge a Book by its Title
The title “Could You Be the Bigger Nigger?” may alarm you but 34 students arrived at it by a unanimous consensus. One of them said, “they’ll get it when they read our essays.” The price 15 year-old Elizabeth Eckford (the cover photo is attached) paid so that we all gained access to our educational civil and human rights must have required that she be “bigger” than she and especially whites “knew” her to be as a so-called “nigger.” In 2011, racism may be less overt for many blacks and perhaps more overt for Muslims and gays. These essays are our testimony to being the “bigger nigger” or simply, being “bigger” that we ever imagined when it comes to racism. Who we are in the small, ordinary moments that offend us around race and racism matters.
Racism Is Not Personal
At the start of BLS1003: The Evolution and Expressions of Racism, most students considered racism “a collection of individual-level anti-minority group attitudes” (L. Bobo in Gallagher 2009, 157). During the course we discovered the persistent structural inequities found in symbols (i.e., skin color), discriminatory laws and practices, and social group position, power and privilege that we all were born into whether experienced or not.
Why Op-Eds and Why Students Writing Op-Eds?
Last summer, I participated in The OpEd Project with the support of a grant for women in the Baruch College community given by philanthropist RuthAnn Harnisch. The intention of the OpEd Project, created by Catherine Orenstein, is to expand and increase the volume of female thought leaders in the world. I have a similar aim for college students as they embrace their adulthood.
According to data from 2009, of the over 307 million people living in the U.S., over 14% or almost 43 million are between the ages 15 and 29. According to the U.S. Department of Education, there were 18.3 million college students in 2007. Why is it that we so seldom hear, or listen to, the voices of young people and young adults in key public opinion forums when so many key issues directly affect their future? Writing op-eds (crafting a lede, learning to create an argument in various ways, crafting a “to-be-sure” response to anticipate opposition to your argument, and a conclusion) and then publishing them together disrupts the structural inequity and age subjugation that often separates each and every college student from publicly engaging in her/his own adulthood, learning to openly voice their citizenship and influence humanity.
Why not take 34 emerging thought leaders and have each of them link an individual experience with racism to a systematic inequity or embedded disadvantage known as “structural racism.” Have them cite evidence from assigned readings and individually connect to the often elusive or overlooked of race as a social construct. The brilliance here is the collective wisdom from reading the stories of a student who is black with a white, a woman with a man, or––relative to the nationally-recognized ethnic diversity at Baruch––a Asian American with a Bangladeshi-American, a Pakistani Muslim with a Syrian Jew, a disabled mother with a Pagan lesbian and an undocumented student from North America (Mexico). Having these voices in op-eds about racism, publishing them together in a free e-book, has been the most powerful and emotional final project with a real-world or public impact I could ever imagine and fulfills what students ask for.
Create & Share a Racism Op-ed E-book
We invite your class or organization to publish op-eds together. Help us create a social media movement of student thought leadership. We used Scribd.com but whatever you use, SHARE it widely with your family and friends through Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. Share it with leaders in your school and community. Send it to your principal, dean or local politicians! Don’t limit learning to the classroom. Give it away! Social and collaborative learning can reach thousands or more. A former anthropology class published SPEAK! The Miseducation of College Students in May 2010. Speak! has been read by over 4500 people in less than 6 months.
Dare to be Different: Go Public!
Think about it! Publish a “little” idea, a little story with your classmates’ little ideas on race or social justice. Say to yourself “Maybe I’m right!” rather than starting from what if I’m wrong. Practice trusting yourself. Practice trusting your students. What young adults have to say matters! Openly sharing prepared (and not-so prepared) thoughts in public is the best education there is. Be the audacity of that!
Kyra D. Gaunt, Ph.D.
2009 TED Fellow
Associate Professor at Baruch College-CUNY
Voicing “the unspoken” through song, scholarship and social media
An idea worth spreading: Agree to be Offended & Stay Connected. Reveal Your Connection to the Remarkable Oneness of Humanity.
“I have learned silence from the talkative, tolerance from the intolerant, and kindness from the unkind; yet strangely, I am ungrateful to these teachers” — Kahlil Gibran