As Clemente sophomores began reading Drown, a semi-autobiographical novel by Junot Diaz, many students were taken aback and intrigued by Diaz’s bold and raw use of language. Diaz doesn’t shy away from using profanity and slang in his narrative—a technique which reveals his narrative voice and identity, and connects to readers. This led to the question: how does (typically) offensive language unite individuals and create identity?
To answer this question, students conducted research to explore the historical roots of common racial slurs and other insults that many youths toss around today as terms of endearment. Students traced the development of these terms, comparing and contrasting how these words have evolved from their historically offensive meanings to far less inflammatory (and even affectionate) modern usage.
This exploration of language led to thoughtful, honest, and passionate debates about what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable use of these words. Students defended their opinions and challenged those of their peers in order to understand the complex role that language plays in creating relationships within and between different cultural and social groups. They also reflected on how some groups of people seem to have “taken back,” or repurposed, these (originally) offensive words by using them in casual conversations with their peers. Students brought up seemingly unanswerable questions such as: Can white people use the N-word? Why is it okay for women to use the b-word, but not men? Why do some people seem to be okay with these double standards?
Many students became aware of how they themselves even perpetuate certain double standards by using offensive language to relate to their friends—the same language that would offend them if used by someone outside of their social circle. As groups of students created artistic and informative posters, they gained a new perspective on how they have taken ownership of their language, determined their own unspoken rules for fair use, and established new meanings.