Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Words that Wound

By Andrew Grant-Thomas, Deputy Director of the Kirwan Institute

I know a 15 year-old – let’s call her Karen -- who is the only black player on the field hockey team at her predominantly white public high school in an affluent Connecticut town. She’s the goalie and one of the best players on the team.

Her team just played another team that, as it happened, also included one black player. At some point during the game, an opposing player screamed at a teammate to “get it into the nigger.” Whether either coach or the referee heard the remark is unclear, though one of Karen’s teammates told their coach about it after the game. Two days later, Karen responded to her mother’s question about practice that day by declaring that she no longer wanted to play on the team. Only then did the story emerge, in a flood of tears.

Karen’s mother asked mine to accompany her to a meeting with her daughter’s coach and school principal. My mom agreed and then called me. What should they say at this meeting, she wondered. For many reasons, not least my status as the soon-to-be father of a “black” child, I found the question of more than academic interest.

I recommended, first, that Karen’s principal and coach notify the other team’s principal and coach about their student’s words. It seemed important to officially mark the atrocity -- and if you think that’s an excessive term, consider its impact. I’m reminded of DuBois’ story, at the beginning of The Souls of Black Folk, about the white girl in his class who rejected his “visiting card.” Like DuBois, Karen will likely remember that moment on the field for the rest of her life.

Second, preferably as part of a routine practice at the school, the principal should make it clear to all students, staff, and faculty that such behavior is wholly incompatible with their school’s culture and norms. And by “such behavior” I mean words and actions calculated to diminish and dehumanize on the basis of religion, class, gender, and sexual orientation, as well as race and ethnicity.

Third, the coach might assure Karen that her silence on the incident did not reflect her indifference either to the term or its effect. The “nigger” remark reflects on the speaker and on a long, rough history of race and ethnicity in the U.S., not on its target.

As Faulkner put it, the past is never dead. It’s not even past.

And then, preferably with Karen’s agreement and understanding, I’d ask the coach to address the whole team. Not speaking to such incidents simply grants a free pass to the harmful and corrosive meanings of race in our culture. While Karen’s teenage sensibilities deserve their due, care must be taken to define the offense as the ugliness it is, and to ensure that, in the end, this particular racial brushfire sheds more light than heat.


  1. It is becomming obvious that the American society could use a mass diveristy training!

    I feel for Karen. That had to be a very difficult situation to be exposed to.

    Both of the school's that were involved need to deal with their student athletes. There should be no tolerance for any use of ethinic slurs.

    I hope that things improve within this community.

  2. I do hope you will post a follow-up regarding the actions that were actually taken. Great advice though--as I head into a parent-teacher conference this evening hoping that my son won't collapse in my arms after the words the other students used achieved their purpose--to make my son feel small and insignificant. That he is ONLY defined by the color of his skin, and that his skin is the "wrong" color.

    Great post.

  3. I'll get a full update and post it. I can say that my mother and Karen's mother met with the school principal and athletic director -- for some reason the coach was not involved -- and that they, especially the principal, were very defensive and even challenged whether the incident had happened at all.

    But I'll an update soon. Thanks for your comments and I hope you're planning to come to our conference in two weeks, where "talking about race" will be a huge topic of discussion.

    Take care,

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