N Word

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The photo of 6 Desert Vista High School students wearing t shirts depicting the N Word sparked conversation in the valley and across the country about issues of racial sensitivity. Doctor Neal Lester, Arizona State University Foundation professor of English and founding director of Project Humanities at Arizona State University talks the N Word and race relations.

Jose Cardenas: The photo of six Desert Vista High School students wearing T-shirts depicting the N-word sparked conversation in the valley and around the world about issues of racial sensitivity. Is it really just a word? Joining me to talk about this is Neal Lester, an ASU foundation professor of English and founding director of project humanities at ASU. Dr. Lester thanks for joining us on "Horizonte." You've been here before. We've talked about this before.

Neal Lester: We have talked about this before.

Jose Cardenas: And you sent me an e-mail saying why are we still talking about this?

Neal Lester: And that's a bit of a rhetorical question but it's also a question that I'm still pondering because it seems like we're going in a circle and not exactly advancing in this conversation. I do hope that this moment, however, is different than the others.

Jose Cardenas: And what makes you hope that? Is that a realistic hope?

Neal Lester: I think it's now crossing into the generations I think that matter. And so in many ways, I look at this as an opportunity since I have been reached out to as someone to advise as they get through this circumstance that not only will I be continuing my efforts to educate but also having the high school students along with me I think could be a good team so that it's not just the generational thing and the divide that seems to sort of dominate these conversations.

Jose Cardenas: Let me ask you this: You've been working on this for some time. The issue comes up repeatedly and yet, and the timing on this one in particular was unfortunate, not that there's ever a good time but right on the heels of Martin Luther King.

Neal Lester: In the same week actually, and I think that in part explains why this became a national, even international story, because Arizona is still living under that umbrella of the MLK holiday and the approval not until 1986, and so this notion that oh, yet another story about Arizona is something that we are still trying to counter. But I think the fact that this happened at a school and that it happened among students who initially were not offended by this until they recognized that they should be at least concerned about this relative to language and hip hop and race relations and kind of an unawareness that was prevalent, not only among the six young women but their fellow students of color. While they noticed something was not quite right with the spelling of this because of that delusional sense that if you spell it one way with a G-A or G-A-H that it doesn't mean the same thing with the E-R, I hope this is an opportunity that we might get to the bottom of those kinds of unfounded conclusions that many young people still hold on to when they start talking about language and they start thinking about what they are hearing and absorbing around them.

Jose Cardenas: So you indicated you've been contacted to be part of the solution so to speak, both locally and in other places?

Neal Lester: Correct. And this is not the first time but what it does solidify, however, is an immediate need that this is not just here in Arizona but a school in Oregon has reached out as well as a school in Omaha, Nebraska. And this is just on the heels of what happened here in the sense that they don't want this to happen at their schools. They're trying to proactive and that's by listening to students and what they think and how what they think may differ from their parents and grandparents' perceptions of race relations in America.

Jose Cardenas: And you and I talked a little bit off-camera about the fact that the involvement of the students may make this opportunity a little bit different than other situations?

Neal Lester: I think so. And I think because this is not a matter of singling those students out as representative of all students but it sheds light on the fact that there needs to be more cultural sensitivity and cultural awareness in the pedagogy, what goes on in the classrooms and that's something that I learned in this circumstance and I didn't necessarily know before this happened is that there's not consistent training for teachers and staff, pedagogically as well as generally when students are in schools that are not racially diverse and then those that are. So there's not a whole lot of pedagogical guidance in terms of how do you teach a text that has this word in it in such a way that the word doesn't overwhelm the text, whether it be To Kill a Mockingbird or Huckleberry Finn. I think the fact that the school could potentially be a model of what other schools across the nation might look like if they were to engage in making this a teachable moment.

Jose Cardenas: So new strategies may come out of this?

Neal Lester: New strategies will definitely come out of this.

Jose Cardenas: And how would you build on that?

Neal Lester: Well, what I want to make sure we do is to have ways that the students are communicating to each other.

Jose Cardenas: It's not just you talking to them. Not that you aren't very persuasive on the subject.

Neal Lester: But I can't be everywhere, and I think I can communicate to certain parts of the audience but I think that the combination of me and others with them will make a much stronger case as to why we need to be concerned about language, not so much about what people can and can't say because as I pointed out in many conversations that this is not criminal unless it's attached to some behavior that is criminal, but the fact that there will be social consequences I think has to be expanded beyond my generation and this word but rather what it means to post something on social media and have that never go away. So there are lots of ways that this can become a much larger conversation and a good teachable moment for all involved.

Jose Cardenas: Well, I'm hopeful that we'll have you back on the show to talk about what's been learned as opposed to another why is this still a problem question. Thank you so much for joining us on "Horizonte."

Neal Lester: Thank you.

Doctor Neal Lester: Arizona State University Foundation Professor of English

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