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Local View: Is a racial slur ever OK? What about when teacher is teaching it?

From the column: "McAuley’s Sisters of Mercy ... acted in knee-jerk fashion to fire an experienced teacher who seemed to have no intention other than to teach an important lesson."

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In the wake of the Joe Rogan controversy, high school history teacher Mary DeVoto of Mother McAuley High School in Illinois, who was recently fired for using a racist slur as part of a history lesson, should be given a second chance.

Rogan apologized for using the slur in past podcasts, and Spotify imposed no penalty on its profitable and popular talk-show host. Whereas, DeVoto was terminated after comparing the n-word, which she uttered, to another slur that served as the previous name of Washington’s professional football team, to impress upon inquiring students why the latter is offensive to Native Americans.

Award-winning novelist and educator Sherman Alexie spoke of the unique way he had of teaching the same concept for which DeVoto was fired: “A sports mascot made on a conquered people is utterly racist. The first thing I always do when I’m addressing people who are pro-mascot is I ask them to call me a redskin. … ‘Stand up right there and call me a redskin. Right now. Call me a redskin.’ Nobody ever has. The way I know redskins is a racist term is because nobody has ever called me that in a positive manner.”

As a member of the Spokane-Coeur d’Alene nation, Alexie has “license” to use the offensive term, along with his own personal experience, in getting the message across.

Whereas, for non-Natives like DeVoto or myself, a white college teacher of Native American literature, conveying the concept has been the most difficult challenge we face, but a lesson that is necessary since so many non-Native students seem to think that sports mascots honor Native Americans; and they fail to imagine how they are offensive.

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The method I used to employ in my college classes was to describe a hypothetical scenario to get non-Native students to metaphorically walk a mile in a Native Americans’ shoes. I would ask them to think of their own grandparents, and then imagine if earlier in the elders’ lives, they had been attacked by a gang who invaded and inhabited their home, stole their valuables, and raped and murdered their grandmother. “What would your reaction be today?” I would ask, if the same gang’s descendants used your grandparents’ names, along with a cartoonish caricature of your grandfather’s likeness, as a mascot for its football team?

My hope was that my students would henceforth think more carefully about a Native American sports mascot’s implications — the handful of students, at least, who didn’t nod off during my painstaking explanation.

Devoto, drawing on her 42 years in the classroom, employed one of the most reliable and effective methods in an instructor’s toolkit: namely, an analogy, to compare the racist term for Native Americans uttered by Alexie with the racist term for African Americans, which she voiced, rather than spelled out.

The effect was dramatic and immediate, judging its near-instant appearance on social media, subsequently alerting McAuley’s Sisters of Mercy, who acted in knee-jerk fashion to fire an experienced teacher who seemed to have no intention other than to teach an important lesson. An online petition for her reinstatement has more than 4,400 signatures as of this writing.

Based on DeVoto's dismay and apologies after being fired, her use of the word was a gross verbal indiscretion, likely used out of exasperation from the aforementioned student cluelessness about the offensive nature of the Native American term, and partly because of her assumption of pedagogical license. What few would dispute, based on DeVoto’s instant regret and community support, is the absence of malicious intent.

Today, thankfully, teachers can cite academic research by Stephanie Fryberg of the University of Washington to graphically demonstrate the harm done by teams using Native American names and mascots. Four separate studies by Fryberg found that such slurs and imagery had egregious negative impacts on Native youth, who perceived the rest of the country viewing them in a way that had no connection to their current lives. All of which worsened their sense of confused identity, low self-esteem, and societal irrelevance and invisibility, which increased their already epidemic rates of clinical depression and suicide. In other words, billionaire team owners who insist on retaining offensive names and mascots do so at a terrible cost in human life.

Meanwhile, the speed with which McAuley administrators fired DeVoto seemed rash. They defended their decision by pointing to DeVoto's further use of the term when she was called into the office. Whereas, DeVoto protested that she was just trying to be accurate by quoting herself in her recounting of the incident.

All of which may suggest that DeVoto frankly did not know that a white person should never use the word even in a strictly educational context. And her not knowing is conceivable, since psychologists, linguists, sociologists and educators still can’t seem to agree about its absolute impropriety, as evidenced by the ongoing debate on the Opinion pages of the News Tribune — and in thousands of other newspaper and journal articles, from the the New York Times (“In Defense of a Loaded Word,” by TaNehisi Coates, Nov. 24, 2013) to Inside Higher Ed (“Too Taboo for Class?” by Colleen Flaherty, Feb. 1, 2019).

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Another reason, perhaps, that the Sisters of Mercy might have shown a little mercy.

David McGrath is formerly of Hayward, is an emeritus professor of Native American literature at the College of DuPage in Illinois, and is a frequent contributor to the News Tribune Opinion page. He can be reached at profmcgrath2004@yahoo.com.

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David McGrath

Related Topics: LOCAL VIEWRACISMEDUCATION
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