Teacher: Okay class, that’s it for today. Oh, and one last thing. Never use the n-word.
Student: What’s the n-word?
Teacher: I’m not allowed to say.
Student: Huh?! Uh, can you at least tell us how it’s used?
Teacher: Sure. It’s the offensive word for black people.
Student: Oh, okay. But what is the offensive word for black people?
Teacher: Since you’re not supposed to use it, why would you want to know what it is?
Student: So we’ll know what other people mean by it when they use it.
Teacher: Well then, I guess you’re just going to have to listen for the words people use when referring to black people, and only to black people, take note of those being used in an offensive way, and then pick out the one starting with an n.
Student: Uh, couldn’t you just tell us?
Teacher: No, because the very uttering of its two syllables is offensive.
Student: You mean we’d be offended by the word even if we’d never heard it before?
Teacher: Well, no. But I’m worried you might repeat it.
Student: So could you teach us what it is if we promised never to repeat it?
Teacher: No.
Student: Okay, but to help us out here, can you use the two words, “the n-word”, in a sentence so we know what we should be listening for?
Teacher: I suppose. Okay, “Listen, the n-word, get to the back of the bus!”
Student: That doesn’t sound very offensive.
Teacher: It would if I replaced “the n-word” with the n-word.
Student: I see. But if everyone knows the real word the n-word stands for – well, everyone except us – why isn’t it just as offensive to say, “Listen, the n-word, get to the back of the bus!”?
Teacher: I suppose it is.
Student: So if “the n-word” is just as offensive as the n-word, aren’t you being offensive by telling us, “Never use the n-word!”?
Teacher: No, because I’m not using the n-word, I’m only mentioning it.
Student: So we’re allowed to mention the n-word, just as long as we don’t use it?
Teacher: Exactly!
Student: So then we could also mention the real word the n-word stands for, just as long as we don’t use it, right?
Teacher: I suppose.
Student: Good. Then being careful to mention it rather than use it, can you please tell us what real word the n-word stands for?
Teacher: Not if I want to keep my job.
Student: My friends were right. English is a very hard language to learn.

Categories: Everything You Wanted to Know About What's Going On in the World But Were Afraid to Ask, Social and Political Philosophy, Why My Colleagues Are Idiots

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2 replies

  1. I’m skeptical of the claims that specific words are offensive in any context. However, “get to the back of the bus” is a phrase that is pretty clearly offensive in any context that I can think of. Regardless of the use of (or referral to) a racial slur. Probably even if you added a compliment:

    “Listen, you wonderful human being, get to the back of the bus!”… Yup, that still sounds offensive to me.

    I think the front of the bus would literally have to be on fire for it to fly.


  2. I thought I agreed with you Anon, but I’ve found some counterexamples that weaken my conviction. Again, context is required.

    If the ESL class is in Lethbridge and the busses are nigh empty, being directed to the back of the bus is a little suspect. Although not in the time of covid when one might be directed to keep distance from the driver or other passengers. In the Deep South this order might be really offensive, particularly if white people are directed to the front seats and blacks to the back.

    I’ve traveled enough to know in some contexts in some parts of the world, this phrase wouldn’t raise an eyebrow. Try squeezing on the tube at rush hour in London. No one is human, people are stuffed like a kingsized pillow into a twin pillow case. You’ll lose your butt if it’s sticking out the doors. But then, I believe the ‘n-word’ and all of its baggage is largely North American.

    I’ve been on some standing room only North American busses driven by understandably grouchy drivers. A “get to the back of the bus” from these drivers might bristle a little, but it might be the place on the bus where there is actually a little room to stand. Maybe I’ve gotten on the bus with luggage and that’s the only place where I can safely stow it, to not interfere with the movement of other passengers jumping on and off. I just don’t think in most circumstances in 2021 “get to the back of the bus” would have the same meaning as in ’50s or ’60s America.

    What’s more, an ESL student might come from a country where armed men regularly tell people to get to the back of the bus, to get off the bus, or whatever — at the point of a gun. I’ve unnervingly been on such a bus. I don’t think that’s offensive, it’s just frickin’ scary. Or, one might come from a crowded country where people shove each other around so much that ordering someone to the back of the bus, or to here or to there, is nothing. Hence, “get to the back of the bus” is a ‘so what?’. You have to understand the ‘so what?’ to get why this order is so offensive. Adding ‘n-word’ doesn’t explain anything to anyone who hasn’t a clue about segregation in America, who couldn’t tell you who Rosa Parks is. Student: I’m sorry, but I’m 20 years old and spent most of my life worrying about Daisy Cutters and hurdling corpses. I’ll brush up on the history of this continent when I get settled.

    Note: One needn’t be from another country to be clueless about segregation and Rosa Parks. Some students at Uleth are clueless about the Holocaust. Others haven’t heard of Vietnam.

    Anyway. The short of the long is that I think your skepticism is too quick.


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