The Power of Words – The N Word

[singular] a racial slur that has been historically used as a tool of oppression and hatred against black people.


Aresema Agdie/Bear Witness

Black Student Union co-president Jeda Awuzie and adviser Tobias McLeod say the n-word has no place on campus.

Aresema Agdie , Staff Writer

In October, a sophomore student was recorded repeatedly shouting the n-word to a group of acquaintances. The incident took place off-campus and the video, widely shared in the Branham community, has sparked an uncomfortable conversation about race and the ownership of a term once used to degrade Black slaves.

The student, who is white, no longer attends Branham following outcry over her actions.

Student feelings about use of the n-word are mixed. In a survey sent out by Assistant Principal Victoria Waite in December called Stopping the Normalization of the N-word, 75% of the 365 respondents reported that the n-word is frequently used on campus by both Black and non-Black students.

“I see lots of Hispanic students using the N word, and as a Hispanic person it makes me uncomfortable,” said one student in the survey. “A Hispanic person does not have the same culture or experiences as a Black person and it is unnecessary to use the word either way.”

However, 41% said that they do not feel uncomfortable or disrespected when they hear the word on campus, compared to 25.5% who say that they feel uncomfortable or disrespected, and 33% who say that they sometimes feel that way.

A majority — 65% — think administrators should take action against whenever the hear the word on campus.

The discomfort that Black students and staff feel about the n-word comes against its frequent use among students and in popular culture. They say that students lack an understanding of the origins of the word.

The n-word originated from the mispronunciation of the Spanish “negro,” and historians trace it to the first slaves, referring to Black people as an inferior group. Though the n-word has been reclaimed, sociologists such as Brando Starkey say it only exists to be reclaimed because slave owners used it in the first place to subjugate them.

“We black folk are reclaiming it not from bigoted white folk but from our ancestors, who, sadly, deemed their blackness a badge of inferiority,” he wrote.


‘You’re not calling them brother’

Black Student Union adviser Tobias McLeod shares his family’s near-death run-in with the Klux Klan, an American white supremacist hate group. The KKK had attempted to lynch McLeod’s second cousin, and had beaten him almost to death. 

The n-word was one of the last words that he heard while getting pummeled.

“These guys were basically jealous of him as an upstanding person in the community,” McLeod said. “It just completely messed up his face for the rest of his life.”

McLeod believes that based on his upbringing and history, the n-word is not a word he wants in his vernacular. 

To students who say they are reclaiming the n-word, McLeod said that they can’t change or erase the history that is behind a word.

“Whether you are taking it back or not, you are saying it and you don’t know the impact it’ll have on another person,” McLeod said. “You’re not calling them brother. You’re not calling them sister. You’re not calling them by their name. You’re calling them this other thing that has this negative history.”


Illustration by Dhatri Tummala

Zoom-bombed with hate speech

McLeod and student leaders such as BSU co-president Jeda Awuzie believe that non-black people are using the n-word on Branham’s campus and they wish admin and students would speak up more when they hear the n-word being used. 

Administrators say that they have been holding discussions at staff and district meetings regarding disciplinary actions and interventions involving hate speech and slurs.

Student groups such as the Black Student Union, the Student Equity Team, and Leadership are involved in the steps as well.

Still, senior Diane Rose Fonkwo said that there is a long way to go until students realize the harm of their actions in so easily resorting to the n-word.                                                       

She had attended Black History Month webinar when white students interrupted the discussion and called the black students the n-word as well as other racial slurs. She said that they they draw swastikas on the Zoom whiteboard, and forcefully broadcast explicit video content.

“I was so incredibly upset and tired of being treated unfairly,” said Fonkwo. “It made me realize that there are still such large strides to do justice to the black community.”


‘A life and history of its own

BSU co-President Jeda Awuzie’s first experience with the n-word came in fourth grade. Fresh from Nigeria, she recalls students bullying her and calling her the n-word with a hard r.

In an essay she had written for Jeannine Black’s Ethnic Literature class, she said though the word was new to her, she knew it had a negative meaning. 

“I clung onto my desk — the only safe space — as my eyes grew hot and tears began to well up so quickly that it was impossible to blink them away,” she wrote.  

As a young black woman, Awuzie doesn’t use the n-word as she believes that because the n-word had carried a dehumanizing meaning before it was reclaimed, so it’s not a word that empowers the black community. She values the color of her skin with greatness and Awuzie feels that the n-word doesn’t support that idea and instead goes against it. 

“Being black isn’t just something that I am; it is something that comes with a life and history of its own,” said Awuzie.

Awuzie said that her first experience with the n-word shaped her identity in America. 

Her skin color would almost always be the characteristic people saw first in her, not her personality. She describes this phenomenon as a lens that people see her through, so she must also see herself that way too.

“I gained a greater sense of my place within the world,” she said. “Prior to moving to the United States, I was always cognizant of my skin — how couldn’t I be? But it has never shone so much like a badge as it does now that I live here.”