• Diversity and Speech: Navigating the N-Word

    Leelee Jackson and Geoffrey Stone are hardly household names in diversity circles. But in 2019, my interactions with Jackson, a talented young playwright, and Stone, a passionate defender of free speech, helped illuminate the challenging complexities of diversity and expression.

    As a fellow of the University of California National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement, I have been examining the myriad tensions created when two laudable principles collide: the defense of robust speech and the effort to create greater inclusivity. This intersection has generated considerable controversy, including among diversity advocates.

    Consider the following questions. In what respects should diversity advocates focus on fostering voluntary changes in speech behavior in order to create more inclusive climates? What happens when voluntarism proves to be inadequate? In what circumstances should diversity advocates support more direct action, such as laws, codes, and sanctions on certain anti-inclusivity speech?

    Free speech purists generally oppose efforts to codify speech restrictions. Some may not even support programs aimed at fostering voluntary speech restraint. And yet, take the story of Geoffrey Stone, a renowned law professor at the University of Chicago. A fierce defender of free speech, Stone chaired the university’s Committee on Freedom of Expression, which in 2014 wrote what have become known as the Chicago Principles. Adopted by numerous other universities, this document vigorously opposes limiting speech, “except insofar as limitations on that freedom are necessary to the functioning of the University.” But in March of this year, Stone became known for something else.

    For years Stone, a white man, had used the N-word in his class presentations, particularly to illustrate the legal concept of “fighting words” (words likely to precipitate an immediate, possibly violent, response). He had also been outspoken about the academic right, even the classroom appropriateness, of using the N-word for teaching purposes.

    Then, in March, Stone announced publicly that he would no longer use that word in his classroom. Why the switch? Because of his students, some of whom had argued that his use of the term had become a course distraction. The students taught; Stone listened. He became convinced that his classroom articulation of that hateful, painful word had compromised his teaching. Ergo, no more N-word.

    Stone’s reversal of positions brought varied responses. National press attention. Congratulations for his becoming “woke.” Criticism that he had caved on the principle of free speech.

    Shortly after his announcement, Geof and I had a memorable one-on-one dinner conversation in Washington, D.C., at the University of California Center’s first national conference on free speech and civic engagement, and he elaborated on his change of heart. As he explained, he had not surrendered his strong stand in favor of free speech. He had not been forced to modify his language. He had not been bullied into changing his language. Rather he had listened carefully to his students’ arguments, seriously contemplated their position, and then voluntarily decided to drop the N-word. In contemporary lingo, he had “self-edited” himself. He still could use the N-word in class; he simply wouldn’t.

    At that same dinner, I chanced into another, far different conversation. This one concerned the feasibility and advisability (or not) of creating an official list of slurs and other terms, like the N-word, that should not be used on UC campuses.

    Let me be blunt. I abhor ethnic slurs and demeaning group labels. But I also detest lists of no-no’s, particularly on college campuses. Such lists are arbitrary. They are rigid. They can turn into endless, often inane, laundry lists. I fear the mechanical, authoritarian application of such lists, knowing that rigid lists cannot adequately deal with nuances of expression and the varying contexts in which language is used.

    This brings me to the consideration of Leelee Jackson, a creative young African American graduate student at my school, the University of California, Riverside. Jackson has written a play, The Shit Show: An American Allegory, a biting satire on race relations. Leelee asked me to be in her play. I was the only non-African American in the cast at a recent public reading of her play in Hollywood’s Celebration Theatre. Every actor read several roles, so I got to be a contemporary white racist, a slave owner, and the Big Bad Wolf, who lusts for black Little Red Ridinghood but is frustrated because new laws require him to ask for her “consent” before devouring her.

    In the performance, the N-word was said eleven times ending in “er,” with four additional uses ending in “a,” all spoken by Black actors. One of my characters, the racist Jim, comes close. While alerting new homeowners in his neighborhood, Jim mutters, “Friends, Rhonda is a ni— [pause] ‘African American.’ It’s best to say ‘African American’ and not… the N word.”

    Would I have accepted the role had I been required to say the word itself? I don’t know. Laurel, my wife, said I shouldn’t and she may well be right.

    In Leelee’s creative hands, articulating the N-word served a vital purpose in the play, much as it has in various contexts ranging from the novels of James Baldwin and Mark Twain to the plays of August Wilson and the films of Spike Lee. Would a “zero tolerance” list of forbidden words leave space for such artistic uses, for Leelee’s play? How could codified standards for inclusion or exclusion of other forbidden terms deal with the complexities of nuance and context?

    History has rendered the N-word unique in the pantheon of ethnic slurs. Our nation’s trajectory has infused that particular term with a special emotional core that led Geof Stone to stop saying it in class and Leelee Jackson to decide to use it for theatrical power.

    What about symbols with horrid histories — a swastika or a noose, for example — that have special significance in our expressive iconography? Over the course of time, other terms and symbols may join that pantheon.

    The terrain of diversity evolves continuously, sometimes with startling rapidity. It focuses attention on new concepts, new human categories, new labels, and new hot button terms. This confounds even well-intended efforts to freeze and codify language. The unrelenting, often surprising, process of history has fated us to an endless struggle, word by word, situation by situation, to address our constantly changing expressive environment without the illusory safety net of all-purpose, inherently inadequate regulations.

    This leads me to a final set of questions. Based on his recent actions, is Geof Stone now “woke”? Or Leelee Jackson? Or me? I would have to answer no to all of foregoing, because I don’t consider diversity “wokeness” to be a destination. Rather it is a journey, an endless process of addressing new issues and reconsidering old ones, including those arising from the intersection of diversity and speech.

    None of us will ever get language perfectly “right.” The ongoing quest for greater inclusivity creates continuous change, which inevitably means new expressive challenges. Balancing robust expression with greater inclusivity must be an ongoing series of conversations, disagreements, adaptations, and compromises, not the quest for pat solutions to simplistically framed problems.

    So hats off to those who challenge us, who make us think. Hats off to Leelee Jackson for using daring language to expand the boundaries of thought and feeling. To those University of Chicago law students for being resolute and passionate in standing up for their beliefs about inclusivity. To Geof Stone for having the courage to reconsider, change, and self-edit. Their actions dramatize the continuing evolution of our culture, and the continuing need for unsafe dialogues about diversity and expression.


    An earlier version of this essay appeared in American Diversity Report.