Community & Government

When They Try to Dehumanize You

Jelani Cobb reflects on a personal story that made him realize that people who seek to dehumanize you cannot do so without your consent. John McWhorter deconstructs the N-word—how it evolved and why he believes we shouldn’t give it power.

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Topics include: Oppressive Language: The N-Word • Pop Culture Vernacular

Seven preeminent Black thought leaders share their insight on the reckoning with race in America in three parts: past, present, and future.

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[MUSIC PLAYING] - When I was a high school student, I had a good friend named Darrell. And one day we were hanging out at his house. And his father, Mr. Felker who was a big jazz fan, decided that he was going to go into the city from Queens and buy some records. And we rode along with him. There was something in the news about someone being referred to as the N-word, some prominent Black person who'd been spoken of that way. And the 14-year-old version of me said, those are fighting words-- that's when you start swinging. Mr. Felker was quiet for a minute. And he said, if I call you Robert, will you answer? And I said, no. And if I call you David, will you answer? And I said, no. Or John? No. Why not? Because none of those are my name. And he said, so if I call you by the N-word but you know you're not that, why would you answer to that? And I thought that was really profound. Here was this Black man who had lived in segregation. And he was saying these things because they reflected really hard-won wisdom about how to navigate racism and what to do when people attempt to dehumanize you. And what Mr. Felker was saying to me was that people don't get to humiliate you without your consent. They attempt to dehumanize you. But you don't have to actually consent to that process. You can maintain your integrity and dignity of who you are irrespective of what people around you are trying to do. And that's been one of the most important lessons that I've taken from that moment, but also from so many of the other moments that are inscribed in the history of Black people in this country-- the story of the historian Carter G. Woodson. Carter G. Woodson founded something called Negro History Week in 1926 that went on to become Black History Month, the month of February as a commemoration of his work. He was an amazing man both of his parents were slaves. He didn't go to high school until he was in his 20s. He worked as a coal miner. But when he finished high school, he enrolled in college, finished college, and then enrolled at Harvard University where he became the second Black person to earn a PhD from Harvard. The first had been WEB Du Bois. Along the way he wrote about this and talked about conversations he would have with faculty who would say outright that Black people were inferior-- not that they would intimate it, not that they would suggest it. They would say it with the weight of empirical fact that Black people were inferior. And these were his professors. And while many people would have said, this is cause for me to leave this place, Woodson endured. He persevered, exited Harvard with his PhD in history and then spent the next 50 years writing books to refute the ideas of white supremacy and defend Black humanity. He literally took the tools of people who had deemed him and his community inferior and used them to undermine their very thinking. And we could find that again and again an...

About the Instructor

From critical race theory to the 1619 Project, Black intellectuals are reshaping conversations on race in America. Now seven of those preeminent voices share their insight on the reckoning with race in America in three parts: past, present, and future. Gain a foundational understanding of the history of white supremacy and discover a path forward through the limitless capacity and resilience of Black love.

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Angela Davis, Cornel West, Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, Nikole Hannah-Jones, Sherrilyn Ifill, Jelani Cobb, and John McWhorter

Seven preeminent Black thought leaders share their insight on the reckoning with race in America in three parts: past, present, and future.

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