COMMENTARY | “Dat nigga” is common lingo around the halls of my workplace, even among non-black individuals. Of course, as a high school teacher, the inappropriate language at my workplace comes from the mouths of teenagers. “Black people be like,” “Mexicans always,” “White people act like,” “All Asians look funny,” are utterances heard on a daily basis, in painful addition to the overly-common “dat nigga.” Punishing students for inappropriate language can be a sad chore, for often they seem to not know why they are being punished…this language is virtually all they know.
But it shouldn’t be. Which is why the events at San Diego State University, in which four young men allegedly harassed and bullied their black roommate, are so serious. According to the Associated Press, the 18- and 19-year-old college students are facing misdemeanor hate crime and battery charges for alleged actions that include barricading the victim in his room, outfitting the dorm suite with a Confederate flag, writing racial slurs on a white board, and putting a bike lock around the victim’s neck. The young men, of course, claim that they were “joking around.”
Were they just joking around? Probably not. Even if they were, it is important for today’s teens and young adults to know that racism is not a joking matter. What begins as jokes and “edgy” humor can become something darker over time. Racial differences, physical and socio-cultural, can go from fodder for humor to fodder for discrimination and oppression. Jokes become stereotypes and stereotypes become the bases for informal policies. Eventually you have a political extremist who makes those informal policies formal, and few protest because those new policies only made law what everyone believed anyway.
Race should not be a topic of humor for anyone. I stop black students from saying “dat nigga” in my classroom just as quickly as I stop white students. What good comes from addressing people as “dat nigga”? At best, someone might not be offended. At worst, someone might be offended and you will lose your job. Accepting racial addresses and racial humor in the classroom, even if it seems innocuous on the surface, will only lead to later trouble, be it racial bullying or the shocking realization that not all work supervisors are as accepting as public school teachers.