A white, Newport News, Va., history teacher – who was placed on a week-long paid leave for mentioning the 'N-word' in the context of a history lesson – has been reinstated and will be back in school Tuesday.
Last week, history teacher Lynne Pierce, says that she uttered the 'N-word' as part of an example during an Advanced Placement history course at Heritage High School, whose student population is 90 percent black. On Monday, her 40-year teaching career hung in the balance.
In an interview, Ms. Pierce says that on Sept. 18 she was placed on paid administrative leave, pending an investigation to determine if she should be disciplined, or even allowed back in the classroom.
At noon on Monday, Ms. Pierce said: “I’ll be back in the classroom tomorrow. It’s what I’ve wanted all along. All I wanted to do was teach. Now we’ve lost valuable time and we’re going to have to make it up.”
Pierce says she was speaking the word in the context of her lesson plan for the college-level course which examines “how America celebrates racism without realizing it.” The case in point was the ongoing controversy over the name of the NFL team, the Washington Redskins, a pejorative term for Native Americans.
“I was teaching a lesson on Native Americans. We had already talked about bias and propaganda and stereotypes and one of the students asked me, ‘What’s the big deal about calling a team the Washington Redskins,’” Pierce recounts.
“And I was trying to explain that to them. And the kids said they didn’t see anything wrong with it. So what? And as an example I said to them, ‘Well what would you think if someone was going to start a team and call it the Newport News N***ers? And they didn’t like it. I said, ‘Well of course you don’t like it. That’s the whole point!’”
Pierce adds, “Just because something doesn’t personally affect you doesn’t mean it’s not offensive to someone else If you want to be respected in the terms you don’t want to be called, then you should understand that other people feel the same way. That, basically, is what happened.”
“A parent complained and this is the route the principal chose to take,” she says. “I would have handled it differently.”
A petition in defense of Pierce started by Juslena Williams, who is black and a Heritage alumni, has gained over 1,600 signatures. The petition also started the hashtag #imnotoffended.
The “Bring Back Ms. Pierce” petition argued that Pierce "gave a logical, historical, and educational example of ignored racism in America."
"The high school is 90% Black," the petition continues, "so the comparison was appropriate to show students how offensive it is on both side of the spectrum. Ms. Pierce did nothing wrong. She is a history teacher, she cannot be censored for teaching terms and beliefs that people had throughout history.”
Dennis Parker, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Racial Justice Program, says in an email about the incident, “I don’t know what the NAACP opinion is on this, but I would be very uncomfortable saying that a word can never be used regardless of the context. I would be concerned given the fact that efforts to ban the use of words have been used as a justification for banning works of literature, including some which are focused on issues of racial equality.”
Senior ACLU staff attorney Lee Rowland adds, “Schools are highly regulated environments, and even if courts were to find that a school could discipline a teacher for saying a certain word, that in no way supports a broader governmental power to regulate that word when it's spoken outside of the school context.”
Mr. Parker concludes that his personal opinion, and not necessarily that of the ACLU, is that perhaps setting ground rules informing that the word may come up in context could be a best practices alternative for teachers like Pierce in future.
“I recently spoke at a symposium for high school and middle school students at the New York Historical Society about "To Kill a Mockingbird” and they began the discussion by telling people that the discussion would involve using the word, but that it was not being used casually and for historical and other reasons would not be left out,” Parker writes. “I think that acknowledging that it and similar words are painful and that their use is not casual is a good practice.”