Toolkit for “Straight Talk About the N-word”

As Neal A. Lester reminds us in “Straight Talk About the N-word,” the term is one of the most loaded words in the English language. Is there ever a place for the n-word?

Note: This activity is designed for the upper grades. Any discussion or activity involving the n-word should not allow students to use it in its full form. While some believe there’s a place for the word, it is offensive to most people in public discourse. In addition, the debate activity should be guided with the help of at least one African-American teacher, administrator, parent or community leader. Meet with that person ahead of the activity to collaborate on how you will approach the topic with your students.

Discussion Questions

  1. What is your immediate reaction when you read or hear the n-word? Where do you think that reaction comes from?
  2. Think about and share the places or circumstances when you have seen or heard the n-word. You might consider works of literature, music, graffiti, films, comedy shows, casual conversation among African-American students or casual conversation among white students.
  3. In each of these situations, did you ever think that use of the n-word was appropriate? Why or why not?


A Matter of Debate

  1. As a class, prepare for and hold a debate. Split into two groups, with each group choosing five people for the actual debate. The other members of each group will participate in research and other planning for the debate.
  2. The debate will attempt to answer the question, “Is There a Place for the N-word in Today’s Society?” One group will defend the use of the word in selected circumstances. The other group will argue that there is no place for the word in any circumstance.
  3. Before the debate, plan a few sessions within your group for research into your position. You can use historical information from books or the Internet, personal experiences and opinions from experts in the history and use of the word.
  4. Conduct the debate. At all times, respect the research and opinions of the competing group. You will be judged not on your answer—but on your ability to persuade an audience that your position is the correct one.
  5. Following the debate, discuss the points made by each group. Neal A. Lester, dean of humanities at Arizona State University, says that—despite its appropriation by African-Americans in certain circumstances—the word still contains “poison.” Do you agree with that? Why or why not?


Additional Resources


Minority Report: Black Mischief,” by Christopher Hitchens, The Nation (14 Feb. 2002) 



“Mommy, What Does ‘Nigger’ Mean?” by Gloria Naylor in Ground and Writing about America’s Cultures (1994) 



Nigger, by Randall Kennedy

The N word: Who Can Say It, Who Shouldn’t, and Why (2007), by Jabari Asim

Once Upon a Time in a Different World: Issues and Ideas in African American Children's Literature, by Neal A. Lester