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Editorial: Teacher’s right — kids need to know history of n-word

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Updated: March 21, 2012 8:05AM

As Joan Rivers likes to say, “Can we talk?”

Apparently not.

Not when it comes to the n-word. Not when it comes to talking to children about the ugliness of that word and its history and how it cuts like a knife.

And certainly not in a sixth-grade classroom in a Chicago public school, where a teacher with a record of commitment to progress for disadvantaged African-American children was suspended for five days for doing just that.

We may be wrong about this, but every indication is that the teacher, Lincoln Brown, was unfairly suspended back in October by the principal at Murray Language Academy for being the best kind of teacher — the kind who dares to teach the hardest stuff.

As the Chicago Sun-Times reported Friday, Brown has filed a federal lawsuit alleging that the principal and school violated his civil rights by suspending him without pay after he tried to teach his class “an important lesson in vocabulary, civility and race relations.”

As he told a Sun-Times reporter — and this would be entirely our point as well — “It’s so sad. If we can’t discuss these issues, we’ll never be able to resolve them.”

In his classroom on Oct. 4, Brown said, he got on to the topic of the n-word when one student passed a note to another student with a rap lyric that used the word. Brown, concerned that his students might not understand what a dangerous word that is, then talked to them about how that slur has been used historically and in literature, such as in Huckleberry Finn, and its use in different ways by black people and white people.

When the principal, Gregory Mason, walked into the class to listen in, Brown says, he assumed Mason appreciated the point of the lesson — kids have to understand the ugliness of this word — and approved. But two weeks later, Mason accused Brown of using “verbally abusive language to or in front of students.”

It helps to know who Lincoln Brown is. He is the son of a minister active in the civil rights movement. He was named for the president who signed the Emancipation Proclamation. He grew up in integrated Hyde Park, learned what it’s like to be in the minority as a white student at Kenwood Academy High School and has taught in black neighborhood schools for 21 years.

It helps to know, as well, that quality studies say the best way to teach children about race is to talk about it, openly and at an early age.

“Children see racial differences as much as they see the difference between pink and blue,” write Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman in the book NurtureShock . “But we tell kids that ‘pink’ means for girls and ‘blue’ is for boys. ‘White’ and ‘black’ are mysteries we leave them to figure out on their own.”

We owe it to our kids not to look away.

“Speak openly,” advises Dana Williams in a parenting handbook published by the Southern Poverty Law Center. “When we are honest with children about our country’s history of bigotry, sexism and stereo­types, we help prepare them to challenge these issues when they arise. A child who knows the racial history of the Confederate flag, for example, is less likely to brandish that symbol out of ignorance.”

Best we can tell, that’s all Lincoln Brown was trying to do.

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