The N-word

Jefferson Community College teacher Ken Hardy wanted to teach a class on taboo words. He said one and lost his job.

Published November 8, 1999 4:00PM (EST)

In July 1998, a white professor said "nigger" before a classroom of white and black college students. By the end of the month he had lost his job.

It seemed like a normal enough day in Ken Hardy's introduction to interpersonal communication class at Jefferson Community College in Louisville, Ky. The adjunct professor had wanted to talk about taboo words and their historical evolution. How did they work to support dominant paradigms? he asked his class. How did ordinary words take on the taint of the taboo? The students seemed engaged, rattling off a list of slurs that have traditionally oppressed marginalized groups: "girl," "lady," "faggot," "bitch."

Then a student said the word "nigger" and Hardy, in taking up the conversational thread, repeated it. In what ways, he wondered, did the word offend? On which linguistic and social levels did its disparagement work? For Hardy, the class was going very well. Not only had he launched a lively discussion -- with almost 100 percent participation -- but they were attacking a "philosophically challenging" topic as well.

But first-year transfer student Julia Pierre found the earnest discussion of language quite beside the point. Pierre, one of nine blacks in the 22-student
class, didn't want to hear the word "nigger," regardless of the context. She said so, and the effects were devastating.

In an era marked by distended political sensitivities and their assorted backlashes, this eruption over a single word, uttered dispassionately in the name of education, seems to perfectly embody the absurdist apogee of the academic culture wars. What has become of higher education when the anti-racist college teachers who are in the very midst of teaching anti-racist lessons get fired for racism? Hardy, after all, boasts a long history of civil rights activism. Is infighting among the enlightened dividing the left to death?

During Hardy's class, students tried to ward off this ideological demon; when Pierre voiced her complaint, they reeled. Both white and black students jumped on her: "Don't be stupid," said one student.

"Can't you see what we're talking about here?" asked another.

Hardy hastened to Pierre's defense -- perhaps, he offered, certain words can't ever be uttered, even in the context of their very analysis. Could some words possess such power that even cool academic discourse can't accommodate them?

But the damage had been done and during a break in the class that day, Pierre approached Hardy and requested that he stop using the offensive word. Hardy defended the merits of the discussion but gave Pierre the option of sitting the rest of the class out. Pierre objected.

A few days later she reiterated her disapproval in a letter to Hardy and took her beef to the Rev. Louis Coleman, a famously outspoken Louisville justice crusader. Founder of the Justice Resource Center, Coleman is the self-appointed investigator of many of the city's civil rights complaints. In matters involving alleged racism, he has a reputation for going for the jugular. And true to his calling, Coleman communicated Pierre's complaints to JCC's president.

"We asked him to look into the matter," says Coleman mildly, claiming that he can't remember details of the conversation.

On July 21, five days after the lecture, Hardy found himself in the dean's office being grilled about Pierre's complaints. According to Hardy, Pam Besser, acting dean of academic affairs and his interrogator, acted "argumentative and combative." William Lites, the humanities division chairman, who also attended the meeting, agreed that she was "antagonistic, confrontational and abrupt."

Less than a month after that, Besser left a message on Hardy's machine informing him that, after more than three years at Jefferson, he had no job that fall. Hardy sued on the basis that the school had deprived him of his First Amendment rights.

Lites' characterization of the meeting with Besser appears in the Sept. 3 affidavit he filed for Hardy's suit. Hardy, having been denied a position in the spring 1999 term as well, gathered evidence for his suspicion that the "N-word" incident had fueled his dismissal. In his affidavit, Lites claims that Besser had mentioned in the meeting that a "prominent citizen" was involved in the matter. Lites also contends that Besser said enrollment was down at the school and JCC couldn't afford to alienate the black community. "If you were not a white male," he recalls Besser telling Hardy, "this would not be an issue."

Claiming the school deprived him of his constitutional rights, he brought the case to federal court. The school responded with a motion to dismiss on the basis of sovereign immunity -- as an entity of the state, it argued, the school enjoys an exemption from lawsuits. Hardy, now with the support of the American Federation of Teachers, has since countered this motion. He expects to find out over the next month or two whether the case will be heard.

The tale plays like a teaching parable for both sides. For Coleman and Pierre, the lesson is that no teacher, black or white, should be allowed to say "nigger" in a classroom.

What about when a teacher is trying to get to the bottom of the hatred the word contains? "Doesn't matter," Coleman says. "I think a teacher ought to be fired for that."

"I have never encountered a professor who felt comfortable using that word," says Pierre, who has since transferred to another school. (Her transfer, she claims, has nothing to do with the Hardy incident.)

But for Hardy, such in-class censorship does more than defile our constitutional rights; it plays havoc with academic freedom as well.

Current humanities department chairman Tom Sabetta agrees. "If we're not free to expound on these issues," he says, "we can't do our job ... If these things can't be discussed in the classroom, where should they be discussed?"

According to both Sabetta and Hardy, the faculty stands behind Hardy. Unlike so many of the free-speech debates that periodically sweep the headlines, this one did not emerge from a Klan march or a white-supremacy rally. Even Coleman is reluctant to identify Hardy as a racist.

"I think he was probably trying to convey that these negative words are used, or something," he concedes. "What he failed to realize is that there are different levels of tolerance for racial slurs. This lady had zero tolerance."

Ken Hardy "is highly liberal, socially active ... and [received] one of the best educations of our faculty," Sabetta says. "He's always been very sensitive."

In his affidavit, Hardy reports having marched alongside former Black Panther Party chairman Bobby Seale and attended anti-Ku Klux Klan rallies.

The fact that Hardy's intentions didn't matter throws an interesting spin on his language lecture. What someone means, it appears, can be irrelevant to communication. In the time since his dismissal (technically speaking, it was the absence of a contract renewal), the teacher has had plenty of time to reflect on what, exactly, "nigger" communicates.

"There seems to be some kind of mystification of the word itself," he says. "I was trying to demystify it, but ... maybe it's so mystical that the speaking of it holds a kind of curse. In invoking it, the demon is let loose."

David MacGregor, from the Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington, agrees that such sociolinguistic curses do develop from time to time. He cites early Germanic languages in which the word for bear was unpronounceable. "Bears had this mystic power," he says. "Just invoking the name became so dangerous that people began saying 'brown one' instead. Words get replaced."

Indeed, Coleman claims he has no objection to "the N-word" as a replacement for "nigger." But since both terms appear to refer to the same idea, how can they carry such different meanings?

"The linguistic theory [of both terms referring to the same thing] ignores the emotional content of the word," explains professor Gary Orfield, co-director of Harvard Law School's Civil Rights Project. "There are multiple levels to the communication; there are a lot of different terms for sexual intercourse, and though the idea is the same, the emotional impact varies."

The reverend acknowledges that "nigger," when spoken in certain instances, bears no more hateful an intent than "the N-word." Still, he insists, this is beside the point.

Stanford's John Rickford, the Martin Luther King Jr. centennial professor of linguistics, agrees that sometimes good intentions can't take the sting out of the N-word. "For African-Americans, this is probably the most explosive word there is," he says. Hardy "seems to have set the context for a reasonable conversation, but ... I, personally, would probably have been content to use 'the N-word.' It seems you can achieve the same effect."

Rickford, MacGregor and Orfield, perhaps surprisingly, equivocate when it comes to condemning either side. Though all expressed their concern that Hardy's dismissal was inappropriate (if it indeed occurred for the reasons he believes), they're reluctant to make him a martyr.

"I don't know what it means to 'demystify,'" Orfield says, wondering about Hardy's methods. "If you repeat a word a thousand times until it deadens the nerve endings in your audience, that's not education. That's anesthesiology."

And Rickford says not to underestimate the importance of sensitive pedagogy, if only for practical reasons. "Let's say you're trying to have a conversation and meanwhile you're standing on the person's foot. If you don't take your foot off, it's unlikely that you'll achieve the larger goals of your conversation."

The ultimate irony is that another potentially edifying discussion might get silenced. Despite Besser's tense meeting with Hardy and Lites, the school maintains that Hardy's dismissal was simply a matter of finances. Consequently, its defense in the suit won't touch the issue of academic freedom unless it has to. Although JCC administrators did not reply to repeated requests for interviews, JCC lawyer Clint McTyeire made it clear that even if Hardy's exercise of the First Amendment was a cause of his dismissal, uttering the word "nigger" is not a constitutional right.

"The speech at issue here is not protected by the First Amendment. It's an internal matter," McTyeire said. "But then that's not what happened here ... The speech involved had nothing to do with the non-renewal of [Hardy's] contract."

Under current JCC policy, non-tenured teachers must fill their classes in order to keep their jobs. Those that have high enrollment numbers stand the best chance of being rehired. But even this explanation doesn't hold water in Hardy's case.

"As of May of 1998," Hardy says, "I had been scheduled ... to teach three sections at JCC in the fall, one of which at that time, already had 11 students enrolled."

"It's a strange situation," Sabetta agrees. "Up to that time, Ken Hardy was getting as many classes as he wanted. Then he has some problems and he's never hired back ... It's all very convenient."

This convenience hasn't been addressed by the school, despite what Sabetta calls an almost unanimous perplexity among its teachers. The administration, he claims, has never approached the faculty with any explanation. "Don't ask," he has been told whenever he tried to get to the bottom of things.

Does Coleman believe he got Hardy fired? "I don't know," he says casually. At first he had to be reminded of who Hardy was. He never attempted to speak with the teacher himself. And since then, he has moved on to other battles. "I get 15-16 complaints a day," he explains. "We are very race-conscious here in this Southern city."

Pierre herself claims that while she "wouldn't change anything," she had no interest in getting Hardy fired. "I never requested that he lose any type of employment," she says. "A few days [after the July 16 class], he stopped saying it and began using 'the N-word' instead. I felt satisfied."

As the court decides what to make of JCC's move to dismiss the case, Hardy busies himself on the other side of the teacher's desk. Though he remains hopeful about teaching again one day, the former professor enrolled in law school this fall.

"It's a real loss," Sabetta says.

The loss, according to some of Hardy's supporters, extends to the entire academic community. The former professor's dismissal, they say, registers as a blow to teachers everywhere -- and consequently to the pursuit of knowledge. As former Chief Justice Earl Warren stated in his historic defense of academic freedom, in the absence of free inquiry, "our society will stagnate and die."

By Chris Colin

Chris Colin is the author most recently of "Blindsight," published by the Atavist.

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