On violent language: A student of John Kleiner responds

Ananth Shastri

Professor Kleiner: Last Wednesday you submitted a letter to the editor that explained and defended your use of the N-word during a class on James Baldwin. I understand that some people will disregard your letter, and that is their choice. I choose to engage with it. 

In the letter, you wrote of the “terrible force” of Baldwin’s language. You argued that certain types of violence are “basic to art.” To “shrink from that is understandable,” you wrote, but also “an evasion.” You wished to make students “braver readers and writers.” You wished for them to “experience the force of these texts” uncensored. 

Professor, I think these arguments are limited. Women, people of color and queer people have many opportunities to experience violent, uncensored language outside the classroom setting. The violence that you see as “basic to art” is in fact basic to the world, and because we must move through the world, we cannot avoid it. We are brave by necessity. 

Yet books, unlike a loud homophobe in a moving car, can be set aside when they overwhelm. Books can be read in part. Books can be read in silence, rather than verbally. Art, unlike most of life, lets us choose how much violence we want to experience. If there were a film about an Indian American coming out as nonbinary, I would never watch it. I do not need to see onscreen what I must repeatedly endure in life. 

When we choose to avoid textual violence, which often recalls personal suffering, is this cowardice? Or is it self-respect? Conversely, at what point does it become self-harm to subject oneself to racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic or otherwise violent language? 

Of course, the line between pushing and punishing oneself must be drawn on an individual basis. Some of my richest classroom experiences at Williams have involved pushing myself with works that repurposed violent language in order to critique violence, in much the same way as Baldwin intended. 

But I chose to experience such works, and I chose to discuss them. And these were informed choices, because I was told before every reading what violence it would involve, with the expectation that I could decide to skip readings or discussions that would too painfully echo my own experience. 

Content warnings allow students to choose not to participate in readings, discussions or courses that would make them relive their own particular pain. According to the students in your creative nonfiction class, you did not meaningfully warn them — let alone solicit their consent — before repeatedly using the most violent word in our language. 

Why does the violent language of a seventy-year-old essay seem more necessary to you than the well-being of your students now? 

I admit that I was not in your class that day. Maybe it was a rich learning experience for your students. Maybe there were no people of color present. Maybe your use of the N-word reopened nobody’s wounds. Maybe it reminded nobody of the time when their temple grounds were defaced with the word, by people who did not bother to distinguish between different shades of brown. By people who used that word to lump us together in degradation. 

Maybe so, but the problem is larger than one usage, one class, one professor. The problem is of priority. Bringing alt-right figures to campus, under cover of free speech, is more necessary to some people than the well-being of minoritized students. Denouncing ‘cancel culture’ is more necessary than addressing the actual violence that resulted in ‘cancellation.’ 

Professor Kleiner, some people may want to cancel you; I do not. In the two classes I have taken with you, you have been an excellent teacher, always open to moving old material somewhere new. Your feedback has been helpful. You were kind enough to read 60,000 words of my writing two summers ago, though you certainly did not have to. 

I ask that you reconsider your priorities on violent language. At the very least, warn students before especially troubling readings. Let them know that it is okay — not cowardly — if for reasons of self-respect they choose to step out of any particular discussion. Acknowledge that what may broaden the mind of one student risks re-traumatizing another. 

And please never use the N-word again. Listen to the vast majority of black people who do not want it used in any context by a person who is not black. If this means teaching Baldwin and others like him “in diminished form,” as you warn, then make that compromise. Diminish the text. It is less important than the people who read it. 

Ananth Shastri ’21 is an English major from Washington, D.C.