The Shortcomings of Education: How This Influences Misuse and Abuse of Derogatory Terms

The ins and outs of the misuse of derogatory slurs, and how the lack of proper education or awareness—starting as early as elementary school—can lead to misuse, abuse, and the dulling of these terms’ significance.

When tuning into radio stations that play pop and rap music, you’ll often hear racial slurs in the latest hit song. One of the most common slurs in these hit releases is the N-word: a slur that re-ties the bounds of struggle, brutality, and inhumanity millions of African slaves were subject to throughout the 16th to 20th centuries. Prominent social media platforms such as Tiktok have headed the influence of misuse, promoting videos of individuals lip-syncing the slur, covering their mouths and contorting their faces to highlight their lack of saying, or dance moves that completely plunge the slur and its historical context six feet under. The idea that across most social media platforms, the N-word and other derogatory slurs are simply “slide-by terms,” is simply sickening. The N-word is not just something that we can make dances to, lipsync, or “slide by,” specifically if the implications of the slur are not acknowledged. For centuries on end, Africans were forcibly shipped, like cargo, to the United States for coerced labor, and were treated no better than a commodity. In the 1800s, the N-word was incorporated into white slave-owner vocabulary, and until the late 1900s, was used casually as a way of excluding or verbally discriminating African Americans from white people.  Slurs like the N-word root themselves in bigotry, hatred, and disgusting acts that polarize minority groups from the “common good,” animalize them for their culture, and sometimes even forbid them from achieving proper civil liberties or freedom. History must be dug up in order to prohibit misuse across social platforms, so that we understand the implications of these slurs, acknowledge that these words are grossly degrading, and reintroduce elements of history that suggest one group is inferior to another.

Schools nationwide are, in part, responsible for the lack of understanding surrounding derogatory slurs and the consequences sparked by that lack of knowledge. One may argue that it is “common understanding,” that slurs such as the N-word are offensive. However, how is the offensiveness or significance of a slur “common understanding” when it is often swept under the rug? How can we understand the historical context that beat down marginalized groups with the usage of these words? And why is this context not being incorporated into school curriculums, so studentsfrom a young ageunderstand not only that these words are harmful, but also the extent to which this affects the demographic being targeted?

Misunderstanding, misuse, and dulling of racial slurs are deep-rooted in a lack in the system. For this concept in particular, a lack of education and awareness is the marker for misuse. I remember in 2015, when I was in elementary school, I turned to the back page of a nonfiction passage that highlighted the history of African Americans from the era of colonization to what was the present day back then. I did not read the entire passage as the lexicon was far too advanced for my ten-year-old mind; however, being the child I was, I pretended to read by turning to the back page. Immediately upon looking at the page, I noted a slur that highlighted the grotesque nature of our nation’s history. A slur that shed light upon the perpetuation of discrimination against African Americans. Why would such a degrading word be included in an elementary-level text? What was the motive behind exposing children to this term at such an impressionable age? The fact that I was flabbergasted by the usage of the N-word in an elementary lexicon unveiled a lack in the education system. Had there been a lecture provided for young children that was digestible and allowed for students to properly contextualize derogatory terms (such as the N-word), children could develop an understanding of these slurs’ history, lessening the likelihood of future misuse. Instruction and education in regard to these derogatory slurs all boil down to digestibility, and what can be included and relayed to a group of people without prompting them to tune out the general premise. For a fifth grader like myself, an entire lecture on the Encounter, Colonization, and the Columbian Exchange would likely not enhance my understanding of the topic, simply because it is a lot of material to cram into the mind of a ten-year-old. This strategy may very well work for high schoolers, however, as constituted by/through the APUSH course I am taking this year, or the standard US History class offered to every high school student across the nation. 

Other than the misuse of the N-word, there are many other instances where slursracially motivated or notare abused. The F-slur, which degrades the LGBTQIA+ community, is now mocked, and though less severe, the R-slur, which ridicules the cognitively underdeveloped, is now thrown around specifically with younger generations. Our lack of knowledge in regards to these terms promotes this misuse. My intention with this article is not to focus solely on one slur; however, the N-word conjures a large portion of fault, abuse, and lack of knowledge that remains fluid throughout the present day. Steven Elbow, author of Negotiating the N-word: It's pervasive in pop culture, toxic in schools, emphasizes the constant and wrongful glorification of this slurspecifically in the realm of pop culture. “The word has gained unprecedented popularity in recent years among young hip-hop fans, who hear it with a frequency that verges on the absurd,” he states. He further surveys the common audience of teenagers and young adults in regards to their comfort with the term being thrown around in present-day music. Alex Laura, one of the article’s interviewees, highlights that this slur is not only be used more and more specifically in pop culture, but that it promotes those who are uneducated to throw this word around. If the implications and negative connotations of this slur (and many others) were discussed at the rudimentary level in schools, fewer young people would find the slur’s usage less “catchy,” and by the same token, they would have less interest in amplifying its use. 

The “power of language,” as highlighted by The R-Word and Teaching Kids about the Power of Language, is poignant, specifically when it comes to derogatory terms. The “R” word, which was a medical term coined and heavily used in the early 1900s to allude to cognitive disability, is now utilized simply to insult or mock someone for their inability to pursue a simple task. Although the implications of this term are not nearly as severe or deep-rooted as a racial slur, it is important to note that other “slang” is wrongfully used, simply due to lack of awareness. “The R–word is now a slang term that can be heard everywhere: on playgrounds, in hallways and locker rooms, in countless television shows and movies, and all over social media. We hear this word so frequently in the media that we likely don’t actually hear it,” author Kimberly Palombo writes. The meaning of this term has been skewed and misused so many times that we (as a society) have grown desensitized to its effect. Lack of understanding which leads to misuse on media platforms, has formed a lethal bondage serrated by the blades of ignorance; instead of bathing in the bliss of this ignorance, we as a society must take the necessary steps to forward understanding and back-track misuse. This way, we can honor all differences without the lethal barricade of differencebe it due to multiculturality, learning differences, sexual preference/orientation differences, and moreand pave the way for a more inclusive society.

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