I AM Black and I Am Tired of Discussing The N-Word

The Musk of Greed and The Freedom Not To Care

Free speech does not go without its consequences. Graphic Nadine Abdellatif.

I used to tirelessly explain why the N-word has no place in the classroom.

Only to be met with endless talks of ‘academic freedom’ in return. I too felt that Quebec’s academic freedom bill, Bill 32, was a slap in the face. My education is not negatively impacted by pedagogical censorship, but my mental health is impacted by supposed academic freedom. Is removing my ability to feel safe in predominantly white institutions so that my professors may continue to use slurs freely what academic freedom is about? What part of hate speech is free? 

Elon Musk took ownership of Twitter and, almost immediately, there was a rise in hate speech. Notably, the rise of the usage of the N-word. Musk is a self-proclaimed  “free speech absolutist.” But what does it mean practically? 

Former Justice of the Supreme Court, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., once said: “your personal liberty to swing your arm ends where my nose begins.”  Freedom of speech is not a synonym for freedom of consequence. Infringing on others’ basic human rights is not the same as disturbing one’s right to comfort. To value and protect our rights and freedom of speech, we must first acknowledge the real-life implications they hold. 

Sociologist and Pan-Africanist civil rights activist W.E.B. Dubois said in The Soul of Black Folks,  “[...]The laws are made by men who have little interest in him; they are executed by men who have absolutely no motive for treating Black people with courtesy or consideration.” Musk is the exemplification of the oligarchy’s quest to silence criticism so that they may continue to not consider the people harmed by their carelessness and ignorance.

Just like Bill 32, Musk seeks to create new laws that benefit only those in power. Let us not forget that we are speaking about a man who is the CEO of a company that continues to avoid accountability for the mistreatment of its Black workers. 

Is freedom of speech the obliteration of someone’s sense of basic decency towards others? What is academic freedom for marginalized students?  

Making the classroom feel safe and equitable is a cyclical political hot topic. But making the Internet a more forgiving and compassionate space has never been a focus for any of the tech companies that control it. It remains nowhere to be found on Musk’s agenda. The oppression of marginalized people is too profitable to ever change the status quo. Why would a businessman seek to do anything but conduct business? Musk does not yearn for freedom of speech—after all, what freedom is not afforded to those who essentially own the world—he yearns for ownership of speech and freedom of consequence.

I never used to understand people’s obsession with the N-word. I later understood the obsession wasn’t with the word itself, but rather the pursuit of absolute power under the veil of freedom. It is a reminder that caring about equity-denied lives is a benevolent act, not an obligation. Tolerance and understanding are prioritized for those made uncomfortable by the idea of racism rather than those regularly experiencing it.

In the case of the N-word, the argument for academic freedom is a weak one. No one can effectively stop anyone from saying the N-Word. But saying it, regardless of the context, is the assertion that my humanity does not need to be respected for as long as it lives within the confines of my blackness. From the writings of Joseph Conrad to the white contextualization of the vilification of blackness, arbitrarily valued forms of knowledge and art hold more importance than my person. That a classroom offer absolution only for those with power within it; it is leaving the door unlocked for the revival of slavery through the tacit understanding that respect is neither mutual nor unconditional. It is wielding academic authority negligently. 

I have never seen the word freedom used as often as I have in the last two years. Yet, I rarely see it used in the contexts that need the most liberation. If no word should be taboo, we should first seek to eliminate the conditions that make them taboo in the first place. I do not have the privilege of living in a theoretical utopian society in which the common usage of slurs does not translate into actual violence. I cannot justify using this hateful language, whether in a classroom or not, when parts of the U.S. still have sundown towns and lynchings. While Canada reiterates and reproduces the subjugation of Indigenous peoples,   when the Premiere of Quebec denies the existence of systemic racism. 

Raising online awareness about marginalized lived experiences in response to its omission is, in fact, less conducive to social harmony than merely ignoring habitual discriminatory language. Instead, stepping to the other side of arguments begets more polarization, and therefore more intolerance and hatred. Ultimately, fostering more political tribalism by eclipsing the moderate majority. Social media acts as a prism that entraps extremisms and emboldens racist oligarchs like Legault and Musk. That is what, author and professor of sociology, Chris Bail, argues in his book Breaking the Social Media Prism. 

I am under no illusion that fostering a new collective culture is easy. Social media platforms have presented themselves as an easy solution for a better world with open discussions, and a place for boundless tolerance. It helps make the argument that free speech or academic freedom can only exist with a greater willingness to be open to hearing and engaging with prejudiced ideas. That we must offer self-restraint in the face of words that unsettle and harm us. Philosopher Karl Popper, in his book The Open Society and Its Enemies, introduces the paradox of tolerance. He explains that unlimited tolerance can lead to the extinction of tolerance, and that defending it requires not tolerating the intolerant. As it turns out, tolerance is not inherently good regardless of how many times one may agree to subject themselves to antisemitism, homophobia, anti-blackness and other types of intolerance for the sake of social harmony. 

In truth, Internet discourse happens in a dichotomy—you are either with or against us—and the exposure to people who oppose us often fosters hatred towards them. Hatred then increasingly structures our politics and trickles back into our academic and everyday lives. This socially destructive structure is embedded in the core functioning of social media itself. There is a reward for the expression of disapproval, disdain and outrage on social media and in politics, that holds no equivalent for compassion and care. 

Social media has proven incapable of generating conversations that would otherwise happen organically. Academia ends up being a reflection of how the lack of generative conversations creates more alienation and estrangement from each other. Neither social media in its current form nor Bill 32 remedy this. Instead, they insert themselves as a breeding ground for the justification of hate speech under the guise of free speech. 

Academic freedom designates that student wellness is a secondary concern. For marginalized students, it is about academic compliance and servitude rather than freedom. Any argument for the usage of the N-word by non-black people is but an example of entitlement toward the unethically wielding of freedom of speech.
Musk, like many others, conflate the ability to speak freely in everyday situations and the fear of harsh criticism or retaliation for what is said. Mindful speech doesn’t trigger retaliation, and peril is only a byproduct of carelessness and its resulting harm. Still, the burden of impact falls on the disenfranchised who are left afflicted by the expectation of the graceful reception of hatred and dehumanization. If free speech costs us peace, it is not, in fact, free.

This article originally appeared in Volume 43, Issue 6, published November 8, 2022.