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Esther J. Cepeda

A few weeks ago, I got into what became a heated argument with one of my young students, who was indignant that her teacher flat-out refused to share an important cultural, political and social fact.

The topic was a term that will never pass my lips: the N-word.

"But what does it mean?" pleaded the student, the lone white girl in a 99% Latino classroom. And she was not trying to push my buttons, be defiant or stop our classroom lesson.

We had been discussing the inarguable fact of slavery's impact on the bargain struck to make Washington, D.C., our nation's capital. The decision was made in part to appease Southerners' concern about not having the nation's seat of power too far north. That's when she asked me the question that I couldn't answer.

I told her that the N-word was so fraught, so toxic and so loaded with hatred toward blacks that I absolutely could not say it aloud.

"It's as if you were asking me to tell you what the 'F-word' is," I explained, empathizing because she truly wanted to understand why I refused to share something that was common knowledge, based on her classmates' begging her not to go there. "I could describe the F-word, but I couldn't write the full word on the board or whisper it in your ear or write it on a piece of paper and pass it to you."

This student made a compelling argument: If it's so very important to not say the N-word, shouldn't I name it, say it aloud for educational purposes and discuss why it's so bad instead of asking her to go home and ask her parents to explain the whole thing to her?

Finally, I wrapped up the conversation: "Look, I don't want to lose my job. If I breathe this word aloud, and our principal hears about it, I'm in big trouble. You don't want me to go away and not come back, do you?"

That did it, because I wasn't being hyperbolic. Zero-tolerance rules against bullying and racial epithets in U.S. public schools put me -- one of a tiny handful of teachers of color in a typically all-white teaching staff -- at risk of losing my job. Even if I was explaining a slur during a teachable moment.

Only a few weeks later, in Madison, Wisconsin -- a bastion of progressive values in the middle of a conservative, rural landscape -- high school security guard Marlon Anderson's situation proved my point.

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He uttered the N-word during an exchange with a student and was subsequently terminated from his job.

The kicker? Anderson said the word as he was trying to explain to the student why it was wrong for the student to have used the slur as an insult against him. You see, Anderson is black.

"Every type of N-word you can think of, that's what he was calling me," Anderson told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "I said, do not call me that name. I'm not your N-word. Do not call me that."

It took social media virality and outrage to reverse the school's decision. This included a pledge from the singer Cher to foot the bill for Anderson to sue the Madison School District, and a student walkout, protesting the termination of one of the school's few nonwhite staff members.

I'm not here to criticize the school's policy, which was put into place after forcing out six district employees for using racial slurs in front of, or at, students. But it is a perfect example of how rules initially instituted to keep students safe, especially students of color, can have the unintended consequence of muzzling the very people who can help heal the wounds of racism.

The lesson here is not about zero tolerance, per se. It's about how important it is for people of all colors and races to be able to truly engage in personal, meaningful conversations about race.

As so many scholars preach: We'll never be able to eradicate racism if we can't describe it, name it and see it in ourselves, even as we try to point it out in others.

And who are we as a society if we can't make common-sense decisions about who gets to defend themselves from racial slurs through education and the use of certain racial slurs to make a point?

Until we get past the fear of recrimination for discussing racist language, we cannot educate ourselves on how to actively not be racist.

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Esther Cepeda writes for the Washington Post.

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