In the first week of the 142nd Editorial Board of The Daily Princetonian, we wrote an article describing an incident in which an anthropology professor used the word “n****r” in his class to make a point about hate speech, blasphemy, and other oppressive cultural symbols. He then used the full word repeatedly, according to a recording of the class obtained by the ‘Prince.’
Students in the class — particularly some black students — found it appalling that he chose not only to use the full word, but also to continue to use it after they vocally objected. When we broke the story that night about the student’s reaction, we had to decide if we would print the word “n****r.” Because the story was explicitly about the word’s use, many expected that we would print it. In fact, some college newspapers have. We chose not to.
Words have power, so we should be deliberate in our use of them. But at the same time we also don’t want to be afraid of words. Choosing not to publish this word, however, is not an indication of fear. Rather, it is an homage to the respect and duty we have to and for our readership. We want to be sensitive to the needs of our community. Our community needs us to cover this issue, but it doesn’t need us to print the word in full for the discussion to be had.
The word is distinct from profanity in its historical significance and bloody weight. We don’t even usually publish profanity in full. Using asterisks doesn’t prevent us from making our stories clear, however. As the campus newspaper, we help set the tone of the conversation, and we want it to be one of respect.
We want the conversation to be about the incident and reactions, not about our coverage. Our coverage shouldn’t distract from the serious discourse that’s occurring about free speech, respect, and the use of certain words.
Our job is to be the paper of record at the University. It’s a job we have performed for 141 years already, and while that job is always changing, it includes making decisions about what is harmful — without some benefit — to our community. Of course, we will publish and have published reporting that makes Princeton look far from stellar. Our job is to hold our community accountable. Publishing the word n****r isn’t necessary to do that job.
The ‘Prince’ is a historical reference for many who have come before us and the many who will come after us. Our country and our University is growing more diverse, and we need to reflect that in how we respect each other. Deciding not to publish the word in full, to me, is not an act of censorship. In fact, we’re doing as much as possible to promote a full discussion about these issues throughout our publication. We want to have this conversation, but we want to have it with respect.
We don’t fear words, but we do fear a world without respect for our fellow human beings.
Marcia Brown is Editor-in-Chief of The Daily Princetonian. This letter represents the views of the Editor-in-Chief only; she can be reached at email@example.com.