White Teacher Sues for All-Important Right to Use Racial Slur

Illustration for article titled White Teacher Sues for All-Important Right to Use Racial Slur

A white teacher in Chicago was suspended for using the n-word in class. Now he's suing, claiming he was teaching an important lesson. But the school's principal has a different memory of what went on.


The Chicago Sun-Times reports that teacher Lincoln Brown used the word after he saw it on a note the student was passing. Here's how he describes the incident in legal documents:

[A]t the beginning of a grammar exercise in his sixth grade class, Lincoln Brown saw that his students were unsettled and arguing about the passage of a note which contained lyrics of a rap song. Lincoln Brown then conducted a discussion about how upsetting such language can be, attempted to give his own denunciation of the use of such language, and discussed how even such books as "Huckleberry Finn" were being criticized for the use of the "N-word."

Brown says he was having an important discussion on the problems of racism, that students were "engaged" and "excited" and that "if we can't discuss these issues, we'll never be able to resolve them." He added that he would "never, ever use such a hurtful word" except as a way to help students think about and combat racism. However, principal Gregory Mason, who walked in during the discussion, remembers things differently. He says Brown asked, "can anyone explain to me why blacks can call each other a n*****, and not get mad, but when whites do it, blacks get angry?" He also describes a bizarre-sounding conversation in which Brown asked "have you ever thought about why blacks are killed in movies first?" Then he allegedly "began to explain ‘how I've seen many movies where whites were killed first'" and "continued by stating that, ‘if you believe in this you are no better than the media's portrayal of blacks.'"

It's hard to tell what Brown's point was with the above, but it certainly doesn't sound good. Mason responded by suspending him for five days for "using verbally abusive language to or in front of students" and "cruel, immoral, negligent or criminal conduct or communication to a student, that causes psychological or physical harm." Now Brown is suing the Chicago Board of Education in federal court (somewhat ironically, his case is called Brown v. Board of Education). His legal complaint states,

The actions of defendants have unjustly and illegally punished the plaintiff for speaking on a matter of public concern, i.e, race relations and appropriate words. Not only was plaintiff speaking on a matter of public concern, he was attempting to teach his class of students an important lesson in vocabulary, civility, and race relations.

He's seeking compensatory and punitive damages, and says, "This cannot be a part of who I am. My character has been assassinated." This seems like an exaggeration. Even if that part about being "no better than the media's portrayal of blacks" was a misquote, Brown overstepped — he didn't need to use the n-word repeatedly in order to teach his students about racism. Hearing that word from a white authority figure is always going to be hurtful to some kids, even if he didn't mean it as an abusive way. And there are plenty of ways to discuss issues of race without actually using racial slurs. A five-day suspension seems like an eminently reasonable way to drive this point home, and is far from a character assassination. Frank Shuftan, spokesperson for the Chicago Public Schools, said in a statement, "The teacher has received sufficient due process. In our opinion, his federal lawsuit is without merit."

Read Brown's full legal complaint below:

Lincoln Brown221


Teacher sues CPS after suspension for slur during ‘teachable moment' [Chicago Sun-Times]
White Chicago teacher sues to use n-word in class [The Grio]


Professor Pink

Man, this is straight out of Boston Public. Seriously. I happen to have a VHS tape of the episode where a White teacher tries to ask this very question with his students and gets in trouble with the Black principal. I use it in my own classes when I teach multicultural issues to open up a discussion about this very topic—is it a double standard for Black people to be "allowed" to use "the N-word" while White people are not? (Disclaimer: I take the position that, NO, it is not. I also never use the word myself in class as a White woman.)

It's a risky topic, but I'm dealing with college students, and I find that it gets right at the heart of some of the unspoken questions that many of them have about race and racism in contemporary times. I hope I do the topic and discussion more justice than it *sounds like* this guy did, because I worry just a little bit every time I teach the topic that I'll end up in trouble for it.

Also, I am reminded of this cartoon.