Official’s N-word nonapology ignites Cambridge
It should have been an enriching classroom engagement. Instead, it turned into a public outrage that prompted an outside investigation.
Last month, Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School history teacher Kevin Dua invited his school committee and other elected officials to participate in his students’ final project. Titled “RECLAIMING [N-word] v. Cracker: Editing Racial Context In/For Cambridge,” it examined how the power of words—through laws, protests, and media since the Civil War—has shaped racist language.
Dua, who is black, used the full spelling of the N-word in the project title, and also used the word during his class discussion. School committee member, Emily Dexter, who is white, dropped the full version of the N-word, too. In her attempt to explain the filters that Cambridge Public Schools puts on its school-issued Chromebooks and Web networks, censoring students from viewing objectionable internet content, Dexter was telling students that the N-word is blocked.
As a professional educator, however, Dexter’s pedagogical style in the classroom was not seen as a teaching moment. Instead, it was experienced as an insensitive and out-of-control rant.
“So, if you pick up your textbook, and you look in the index, and you want to know, if the word ‘N-word,’ there are a lot of textbooks that you’re probably aren’t going to see the word. So, somebody has decided for you that word is not something that they want young people to have access to; and you can decide whether or not you think that’s good or not. But the filters aren’t just on computers; the entire world is filtered for you. And since you’re in a school, that’s done by adults.”
Many are now asking whether Dexter should remain on the Cambridge School Committee, since both her tone-deafness and nonapology inflamed rather more than it informed or soothed.
“Most students expressed disappointment, offensiveness, and frustration, and discontent with the insincerity of her attempted apology,” read one letter sent to the committee by CRLS students and faculty. The Boston Globe reported, “Dua said Dexter’s apology was not sincere enough. He said she tried to explain herself for 10 minutes before apologizing for using the word.”
Sadly, Dexter didn’t recognize the deleterious impact her words had on several Cambridge communities once word spread beyond CRLS. As Jane Donohue, a parent, wrote in a letter to Superintendent Kenneth Salim and Mayor Marc McGovern:
As a white educator and CPSD parent, I feel sickened about your use of the n-word yesterday during a CRLS class discussion on censorship. … Your presence on the school committee is now a concrete example of white ignorance and cultural insensitivity at the highest level of our district. How can staff members be held accountable for creating a “rigorous, joyful and culturally responsive environment” and violates it? … Please resign.
Dexter didn’t respond to the incident after a dean of the history department and Dua spoke to her about her remarks after the class in question. She only responded to the incident after Superintendent Salim released a statement to the CPS community. Salim, who is Asian, told the Globe he felt “uncomfortable” hearing Dexter use the N-word.
Although Dexter’s response was tepid, slow, and perfunctory, school committee member Manikka Bowman immediately filed a motion to investigate the incident. In support of Bowman’s motion, Cambridge City Councilor E. Denise Simmons wrote to the committee:
In 2019, there is simply no excuse for having utilized such language and then hiding behind some variant of “I didn’t realize how hurtful this might be” to try to make amends. In 2019, in this community, that kind of ignorance cannot and should not be excused. I am not calling for condemnation, but I very much want us to harness this individual’s terribly poor word choice to spark some very necessary reflection.
The N-word is firmly embedded in the lexicon of racist language that was and still is used to disparage African-Americans. The word does not eradicate its historical baggage and its existing troubling racial relations among blacks and between whites and blacks. Many blacks, myself included, feel reclaiming and using racist words like the N-word dislodges the word from its historical context and makes us all insensitive and arrogant to the historical injustice done.
Dexter, however, doesn’t stand alone in this kerfuffle. Fellow committee member Patricia Nolan, who is also white, attempted to “whitesplain” Dexter’s stance. Bowman, who is black, clapped back that she, too, is tone-deaf.