Who owns the K-word? Hint: It’s not white people

This year saw an incident happen at a school in the Eastern Cape where a white teacher who is known to me said the K-word in class. I wrote about it for Careers Magazine‘s September edition. Check out the full edition here. Support good journalism.

The New School in New York recently investigated author and poet Laurie Sheck for racism, after she used the N-word in a graduate-level creative writing class. In 2019, the novelist admitted she used the word in class, but said it was a part of a discussion on James Baldwin’s 1962 essay, The Creative Process. In the discussion, Sheck asked if anyone in class had seen the 2016 documentary about Baldwin called I Am Not Your Negro, noting that Baldwin had used the actual N-word during the interview, saying the slur herself.

Intersectional feminist theorist Angela Davis, who has written countless papers on racism in the US, has noted language is intrinsically linked to power and racism. “It is embedded in the very fabric of this country, and we’re trying to figure out ways to begin to initiate the process of eliminating that racism.” Davis said that recent movements have come late but are a turning point in history. “For hundreds of years, black people have passed down this collective yearning for freedom from one generation to the next,” she said. “We are doing now what should have been done in the aftermath of slavery.”

While the school might have cleared Sheck of discrimination charges, the blatant use of a word intended to hurt and demean was used by a white person when they had no right to do so. In the US, the N-word has been reappropriated by black people to represent a reclamation of identity. However, in the hands of whiteness, it is still a potent weapon that when used, is designed to dehumanise and humiliate.

Just as W.E.B. du Bois noted that, “the white economic and political elite often failed to recognise blacks as American, just as blacks often failed to recognise their potential for advancement outside of the limited opportunities afforded them by whites,” racial slurs like the N-word reduce people of colour to homogenised groups of those that are less than human, diminish them to a bastardised reference to the colour of their skin.

In South Africa, the K-word is used as a similar weapon but the one of the differences is it has not been reappropriated by black people into mainstream culture. Notably though, Kwaito singer Arthur wrote a song about “being” the K-word, used very much in the same way as Baldwin did, telling his “baas” not to call him the K-word. From Vicky Momberg to Adam Catzavelos, the word has continued to haunt black South Africans as a tool to belittle and degrade and many people use it as such. Those people sought to harm, using the word and its history as an insult. And then you have a recent incident at a private school with a white teacher from Ireland whose use of the word, while not maliciously intended, was equally harmful, even though it was used in the context of education.

Social media has emboldened people to not take responsibility for their actions and hide behind anonymous handles to sprew out hatred. It has become a tool for violent racists to garner support and confirmation of their biases and where the likes of former journalist David Bullard go to drop the K-bomb, seeking attention after years of being irrelevant. But social media is also a place where school kids go to out racism and garner attention of the media, their institutions, and authorities. And this was the case here, where the teacher who said the word was exposed in voice recordings of their lessons. 

The educator in question, who has been a teacher for over a decade, felt it necessary to say the K-word thrice in class, even after students asked them not to. When they refused, explaining that the students need to get used to hearing uncomfortable words, the students said that the K-word was not the teacher’s to use as they are white. They doubled down and mildly apologised, followed by more reasoning, drowning the voices of black students in the class. Like Sheck, they claimed his use of the word was in the context of history. This is not good enough. Neither is the fact that the recordings of this reasoning have gained significant traction on social media but the school is yet to make a public statement. The teacher was suspended and after a hearing, was ordered to complete mediation and racial sensitivity training, after which they resigned, according to a person inside the school.

While the teacher in question and the school failed to comment, there was more than enough on social media to ascertain the feeling. Black students felt he should have been fired while some white students – some of Irish heritage – claimed that the teacher being Irish allowed him to say these words because of Irish oppression. We know that the Irish have been hard done by throughout history. Its heritage is one of the reasons I feel constantly drawn back there, to a country I have no real association, but much connection. There have been many slurs used to describe Irish people, and these are unacceptable under any circumstances to be used by anyone who is not Irish. These terms, much like the N-word, can be appropriated by the Irish for use in their own speech and among each other. This is the complete opposite to the K-word.

This year has seen many students coming forward with stories of racism in their private and ex-Model C schools and the education industry in general. #RacismInSchools was raised by the likes of Eusebius McKaiser, Joanne Joseph and many other social commentators and as it gained more and more traction, more stories were told. The person spearheading the movement from Durban Girls College, Mayuri Govender, spoke about how the schools’ engagement with former students was dismissive at first, and that there was a sense of indebtedness that brown students were made to feel at being allowed into white spaces. Some of the schools in question are being proactive about dealing with their racism issues, but most seem to be hoping the problem will go away the more they delay the process.

The N-word, on one hand, is the ultimate insult to a black American; a word that has tormented generations. But on the other, it was rescued from the smouldering debris of US race relations and has become a term of endearment by the descendants of the very people who once had to endure its barbs. It’s now an exclusively black sign of brotherhood. Its roots – seemingly innocuous – came from “negro”, a common European word for “black” devolved to the term we know today as intentionally derogatory. Just like the K-word devolved from its Arabic roots meaning “non-believer”. We can no longer accept that those words are innocent. Either of them. When people use them, they are weaponising their language, sometimes casually so.

In the case of both Scheck and the white teacher, their argument was that the words were used in an educational context. However, the euphemisms, “N-word” and “K-word”, which many educators have used, would suffice. There is no need for the show of power using a weapon of language that is not theirs to wield. The casualness with which they used each word was unfeeling and full of entitlement as if it’s their history they’re talking about and as if it’s not triggering to those who are still victims to the word’s potency, with no regard for blackness and the experience of living in black skin. Even in a professional setting, the word was triggering and indeed quite harmful.

With the N-word, kept within black American society they can own the word and control it. But you can’t control the K-word because the word has a life and history of its own. Black South Africans have never been able to reappropriate it. People like to talk about it in terms of public and private uses, poetic and malicious, educational and frivolous. But there is none of that nuance here as there is with the N-word in the US. It’s such a complicated word with a particular racialised history that carries far more weight on its back than its intended definition, which is far too close to our current generations. Its roots run deep South African history even before apartheid was conceptualised.

Even a black person from the US is not entitled to use the K-word, no matter how close to Africa an African-American might feel. By the same token, an Irish person is not entitled to the term. No matter how much oppression has been dealt to the Irish, the teacher in question is still white, and therefore has institutionalised power over people of colour. Because of this, they cannot decide whether saying the slur to their students is educational or not. Their black students saying it was offensive and insensitive should have been sufficient for the teacher to stop, much like issues surrounding consent. The teacher did not have the consent of black students to use something that belongs to them. And the fact that the teacher was not fired is indicative of the systemic racism that silences people of colour when they raise these issues. 

But people will always argue for using slurs. On social media, in particular, people who use the words behind closed doors argue that the K-word should be used for educational purposes. Yes, critical and historical discussions about it can take place, and we can’t pretend that it doesn’t exist. However, we also cannot pretend that there is not a double standard with how the word is used behind those closed doors and how those users advocate for it in public. There is no desire for self-reflection as is shown in Athol Fugard’s use of the K-word in Master Harold … And the Boys. The desire is to desensitise so that when that racism drips from the mouth of an angry white person after a fender bender, it’s almost excusable. The influence of language is largely dependent on the balance of power and how people recognise the impact of the words they use. White people, when arguing their right to use the K-word in any context, are arguing their perceived right to assert power over black people.

Even in the classroom, there is a deep need for self-reflection and critically examining how we use language and the extent to which language is a reflection of our innermost thoughts and feelings. A white teacher throwing the K-word around as if it’s fairy dust shows a low level of self-reflection and self-critique. Teachers – especially white ones – cannot control the narrative of black history by telling their students what to think or how to react to something that is obviously painful to them. Irish musician Imelda May writes of Irish oppression of people of colour in a poem called You Don’t Get To Be Racist And Irish, “You don’t get to be proud of your heritage, plights and fights for freedom while kneeling on the neck of another!” 

As an educator myself, I’m more interested in raising questions than in providing answers to them. Questions lead to self-discovery. I don’t seek to rid the world of the K-word at all. On the contrary, I find it necessary to keep it in our literature and history books. But just like statues of those who broke the backs of black people can no longer stand and be celebrated, the word cannot be used in a working manner. There needs to be a recognition that it belongs to black people now. Black people need to decide what to do with it. White people need to notice the winces whenever people of colour hear it. The decision for black people to not include it in their vocabulary is a deeply personal one and one that is understandable. But it needs to belong solely to black folk who can decide how to wield it. As long as it belongs to white people, black folk will forever be haunted by the ghosts of hate and of self-hate.