Editor’s Note: This article contains a racist term in a direct quote from an interview subject who uses it to describe an interaction he had with a student.
The early October scuffle with an unruly student was not the first time Marlon Anderson, a black school security guard, had been called a racial slur.
This time, the hallway tirade came from a black high school student, who had just gotten into an argument with an administrator. Anderson, an 11-year employee of the Madison, Wis., district, said he told the student what he always says when the word is hurled at him.
“Do not call me ‘nigger,’” Anderson, 48, said.
What happened next has left the district in turmoil that has barely subsided.
In previous situations, Anderson said, the principal might have called the offending student into the office for apologies. “One hundred percent of the time, that conversation ends with a handshake or a hug,” said Anderson, who works at the district’s 2,200-student West High School.
This time though, he was fired.
The reason? He ran afoul of a new district stance forbidding staff members from using the slur.
Anderson’s termination prompted outrage that spread like wildfire across social media. More than 1,000 students and staff staged a peaceful school walkout to support Anderson, led by a group that included his son Noah, a West High senior and president of its Black Student Union. Singer and actress Cher offered to pay his legal bills. Former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said the district needed to grow “a brain, and a heart.”
Within days, Anderson’s termination was rescinded. But students, parents, and district leaders are still grappling with the fallout. How did politically liberal Madison, where the 27,000-student school district has an avowed commitment to “black excellence,” get this so wrong?
“This was a really tough situation to go through,” said Gloria Reyes, the president of the Madison school board. “Now we’re going to have to really do the work and it’s going to be hard, and complex, and I hope we’re able to turn this around.”
Zero Tolerance Backfires
But as Madison moves forward, it—like many school districts—has to grapple with how to build rules around the use of a word that is both uniquely toxic and often used casually, often jokingly, by some of the same people it is meant to disparage.
Over the past school year, several Madison teachers and other staff members have resigned, been suspended or fired for using the racial slur. In February, then-Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham sent a letter to staff saying that “no matter the context or circumstance, the use of racial slurs or hate language aimed at a person’s protected class status is unacceptable.”
Anderson’s case is shedding more light on some of those other disciplinary actions. On Oct. 25, another black district staff member, Sandra Rivera, came forward to say she was punished after using the word during a March staff meeting. Rivera said she was repeating what she had heard from a student, in a conversation about how to respond to student use of racial slurs and other insults. No children or other black staff members were present, she said.
Rivera, a middle school social worker, said the situation with Anderson prompted her to come forward.
“I felt like my silence has kind of contributed to this way of responding to situations like this,” Rivera said during a press conference covered by local media outlets. “It has contributed to the damage that it continues to do, this zero-tolerance policy.”
Reyes, the school board president, said that the district’s intent was to send a strong message to staff about racial slurs.
“We were very firm against people using the n-word, in whatever context,” she said. But this controversy illustrates the difficulty of enforcing universal policies, she acknowledged.
“If we are really going to tackle anti-racism, we have to understand the complexity, and also the context,” Rivera said. “We rescinded the termination and it was the right thing to do. And now we’re left at this place where you think, what happens to these other cases?”
Students, particularly members of the Black Student Union at the high school where Anderson works, are putting themselves in the forefront of the continuing discussions. Alana Caire, a senior at West High School, said she’d like to see classes and discussions about the word, led by students.
“The absence of black people is definitely a problem in this situation. You need to have black people on the [school] board. You need to reach out to the students,” she said.
As for the word’s casual usage, Caire said, “I don’t think any person who is not black should be saying it at all.” But even its use among black people makes her uncomfortable.
“I don’t like it at all. No matter what form it’s used in, it still connects to oppression of black people,” she said.
White Principals Ask: What Do We Do?
How to handle usage of racist language—in any context—is something any district, school, or educator is at risk of bungling. One big factor is that administrators and teachers are overwhelmingly white.
“The bigger issue speaks to the fact that schools don’t know how to deal with this issue around the n-word. They’re very afraid of doing, saying, acting in the wrong way,” said Tyrone Howard, a professor of education at the University of California-Los Angeles and the director of the university’s Black Male Institute.
“They fired Mr. Anderson, but kids use the words with no ramifications whatsoever. There’s got to be zero tolerance for the n-word, for anybody. There’s got to be a clear, consistent message.”
But that needs to come with some education, Howard said. “I don’t think today’s kids fully understand the history behind the word.”
Howard sees this as a manifestation of how difficult it is for schools to talk about race.
“The majority of school principals are white. They don’t know how to talk about race, they don’t desire to talk about race, they don’t have the will to talk about race. You’ve got the blind leading the blind, so to speak.”
Howard said that at least one principal has told him, “‘I just don’t think I have the moral standing, as a white male, to tell a black kid not to use the n-word.’ I told him I wholeheartedly disagree.”
Another challenge: Often, it’s black people fighting blanket prohibitions, saying the word can be acceptable, even friendly, in some circumstances. Randall Kennedy, a professor at the Harvard Law School who wrote a 2002 book exploring the word, said in a magazine interview that “we should take comfort from the idea that a word that has miserable, terrible, hurtful roots can be appropriated by folks and made into something very different, including an anti-racist word, including a term of endearment.”
But not everyone sees it that way. Neal A. Lester, the founding director of Project Humanities at Arizona State University, has led college courses focused exclusively on critical analysis of the racial slur—its history as well as its continually shifting use.
Lester disagrees with the idea that the word has been “reclaimed” by black people.
“You can’t reclaim something you never owned,” Lester said. “Why are we hanging on to that, as if it’s something that uplifts us?”
But, Lester added, “I can’t tell you how many white administrators have called me and said, I don’t know what to do about this,” he said. Forbidding the word in casual usage is not complicated, he said.
“The complicated part, for me, is how you determine what the punishment is. You’re going to open up a whole can of worms if you say we are going to let this person get by, but we’re not going to let the others get by.”
It’s important not to shy away from a forthright discussion, said Jerome Gourdine, a former middle school principal in Oakland, Calif. He now directs the Oakland district’s Manhood Development Program, an elective class that wraps black boys in cultural supports, led by teachers who are black men.
“We actually have a lesson on the history behind that word. That creates some really good dialogue between our kings”—the name for students in the program—“and our facilitators. We hope that once they understand the origin of the word, that will help them be more aware of when they may decide to use it within their own age group.”
Gourdine is under no illusions that he can put a halt to casual usage. But students are called out and made to reflect on their words if they use the slur during class.
“If they say that word, it’ll be brought to their attention,” he said, but the intent is to learn, not punish. “We also take the stance that they’re kids, they’re not mini-adults.”
‘Trying to Educate Our Kids’
In some ways, Anderson’s ad-hoc lessons for students reflect the views of these educators.
It’s not a word that he wants any student to use, for any reason. Another man taught him that lesson when he was young, and he sees it as his duty to pass on that knowledge.
“I was just trying to educate our kids, really seeing the damage that this word can cause,” Anderson said. White students make up a little more than half the student body at West High. About 20 percent of students are Latino, 13 percent are black and 10 percent are Asian.
“Even if I said the word, I believe that I have a right to say, ‘Don’t call me that.’ That conversation is a conversation that a black man can have with a black student in our community. I had that conversation, with me when I was a child.”
He said it’s particularly important for him to represent that view at West High, which has few black staff members, he said.
“A lot of our kids call each other that,” Anderson said, and he calls them out. “I ask, why did you call your brother that word, and the typical response is “Uh, ‘cause they black?’ Really, so that’s how you see yourself?”
That word is not who he is, Anderson said. “And I want to teach the child that’s not who you are, either.”
“The district chose to take a very lazy approach to addressing some of these situations. If you deal with every situation individually, it just means you actually have to do a little bit more work,” Anderson said.
But the uproar has been remarkably uplifting, especially seeing the number of staff and students who have rallied behind him in the aftermath.
“The way those young people stepped up … I really haven’t had an opportunity to get mad. It’s just been surreal. It’s been super peaceful,” he said. “Usually you have to wait until your funeral to hear how your life impacted the lives of others.”