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Teacher Lesson Return to "The 'N' Word: It Just Slips Out"
The 'N' Word: It Just Slips Out
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Lesson for “It Just Slips Out”

The Power of Ambivalence

We all know the writing instructions which students sometimes face on tests or assignments: “Write an essay agreeing or disagreeing with the following statement...”

Unfortunately, this type of question does not allow the student to admit ambivalence or confusion, even about difficult subjects like the death penalty or abortion. Writing becomes an exercise in taking stands rather than thinking through issues.

We should train students to take stands and defend them capably. However, we should remember that writing is thinking, and thinking can leave us more confused about an issue than spitting out stock reasons to support it.

The author’s exploration of using the word nigger is effective partly because of his ambivalence and his willingness to express his uncertainties. He is not afraid to think out loud. Here are some aspects of his story that you might want to point out to your students.

1) He does not start with a definite opinion (“It’s an insult to the race” or “It’s suppression of the word that gives it power so let’s use it openly.”) The reader is not allowed to prejudge (and perhaps skip) the article. His opening can lead to a pro or a con stance, an intriguing prospect.

2) He traces his changes of mind about the word in very concrete fashion. The reader can follow his shifts because they are grounded in experience: sibling example, adult counsel, growing knowledge of the traditional meaning of the word, peer pressure, self-censorship. The reader can appreciate the tensions he feels about the word.

3) He openly admits his confusion in several places in the story. The reader cannot forget that the writer is riding a seesaw and that he knows it.

4) He ends the story without a resolution. He suggests several reasons why the word has become popular but admits he isn’t sure. He hopes for an end to his mixed feelings but remains on the fence, a painful but common position.

As a practical exercise based on the above, have your students write about something they feel confused about or keep changing their mind about. It could be a person, an issue, or a past event. What happened to change their minds or what keeps them from resolving the confusion?
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(NYC-1994-01-07)

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