Brian Emanuels, A Brick in the Wall

I'M FRESHLY BACK home after an unexpected cross-country trip with long stretches of road in which the only AM radio stations were rebroadcasting the same four talk- radio dittoheads.

And what should greet me but the whole Brian Emanuels episode. At this point, I should be sputtering outraged indignities about the P.C. Police. And I'm a member of the P.C. Police.

So allow me.

Emanuels, in case you're not up on your local Jerry Springer-esque school-district dramas, is the white former Cleveland High School teacher who resigned after his use of the word nigger on the job last month raised such a stink that new local NAACP leader Carl Mack, among others, called for his head. Emanuels gave it to them by quitting.

The case pushes my buttons for a number of reasons. For one, I'm a white guy who works with words for a living. As a kid, I was dumped into a private, all-white South Carolina "academy" founded specifically to avoid desegregation. I've spent most of my adult life working, in one context or another, on political issues that involve combatting white supremacism (a clearer, less ambiguous term than "racism"). For more than a decade, most of it spent in the South, I was the white guy in an interracial relationship. Now, I live and work in a Central District neighborhood where 85 percent of the people I see each day are black.

I also care a lot about education. My current beloved (for nine years now) teaches. I speak at schools frequently. For the last two years, I've also been on the advisory board of the student newspaper at my neighborhood high school, Garfield. This just as easily could have happened there.

I also happen to have grown up gay, the other component of Emanuels' linguistic nightmare.

I also just used the word nigger in my very public job. Twice.

And the pillorying of Brian Emanuels sucks. Big time. It's ridiculous, for the same reasons it would be ridiculous if I were fired for what I just wrote.

SOME LANGUAGES have a grammatical structure in which the meaning or conjugation of a word changes depending on who's using it and who the audience is. Ours is not one. Nigger has become a rare word in the English language. What other word parallels its usage? One speaker (a black guy) can use it in referring to a friend, and it's casual slang; coming from a white guy to the same person, it's a deadly insult.

As it happens, Emanuels' student uttered one of the only other such words out there: gay. The critical context, missing from both the howls of outrage and most media accounts, was that Emanuels did not call his African-American student a nigger. He used the word in exactly the same context that his student did when the boy referred to an assignment as being "gay," slang for (roughly) weak, effeminate, and unworthy. Intentionally or not, the kid was using a word as a slur that I can use freely to describe myself, as I did a few sentences ago. Emanuels found exactly the right linguistic comparison by asking the kid, and then the class, how the boy would feel if Emanuels, as a white, called him a nigger, and explaining that the youth had used gay in a similarly offensive way.

Then kids complained, parents squawked, community leaders thundered. And now Emanuelsa retired Microsoftie who went into teaching this year for all the right reasons, the type of teacher our schools desperately needhas left teaching. He made, essentially, a rookie mistake: misjudging, in a racially mixed inner-city high school, his freedom to speak freely as a white guy about a topic never far from anyone's mind.

EMANUELS WAS reprimanded for his poor judgment. Had he not quit, he could have, and would have, learned from it. Instead, a horde of what some talk-radio demagogues might call professional victims descended, ferreting out bigotry where none was shown.

Instead, the lessonfor every white teacher and community member, and not a few blacks as wellis that in a school district and city with far more racially based problems than most whites care to admit, race is a topic that must never be broached. Forget an honest discussion; when a mistake is made, when a grievance is aired, no listening is possible. No learning is possible.

Most of our kids grow up knowing better; most students in Seattle are more colorblind than the adults around them. Race has virtually no biological basis; everyone's DNA is pretty much the same. Race is a social construct.

And now, instead of teaching, Brian Emanuels is another brick in that wall.

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