One of my good friends is a history professor at a local college; in order to preserve anonymity I will not specify which one, but it is a conservative Christian private school in my state. We were discussing some of his curriculum and he mentioned that he is feeling nervous about one of his literary choices, since a paragraph of the document contains one instance of a racially charged word (ne---) and he is not sure if this is appropriate to present to students in the context of an academic discussion. He is not going to read the passage aloud or say or write the word, but the word does exist in the passage and the students are probably going to bring it up. He doesn't want to just not use the passage because it feels wrong to just discard a historical document for that reason alone.

I was intrigued enough by our discussion to ponder what I would do in that situation, since I am hoping to become a professor or educator in my own career, so here is my question:

How does academia treat literary texts that contain offensive/racially charged language? What is the etiquette around presenting texts in class that include these words? Would it be better to simply present the passage in a censored version where the words are modified or removed, or is it better to use the source without any modification but carefully explain it to the students and make sure it is treated in its proper historical context? How would you handle this situation as an educator?

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    There are many good ways to deal with historical texts that are offensive. So your question might be closed as opinion-based. Censorship is not popular with academics, though. – Anonymous Physicist Mar 15 at 23:16
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    It’s worth pointing out that the US Government still uses the word “Negro” in official documents like the US Census. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Negro – nick012000 Mar 15 at 23:51
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    Huckleberry Finn is a particular work that has been the subject of a lot of related conversation - might be good to start there. I think you won't necessarily find consistency of opinion, though, and certainly there won't be a blanket policy that covers every possible usage and every possible work. – Bryan Krause Mar 16 at 1:29
  • @AnonymousPhysicist At least at my university, the line between censorship and academic freedom seems very blurry right now. There are some indications that a heavy-handed approach to censorship is gaining in popularity. – Kimball Mar 16 at 2:19
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    @Kimball Among academics? Or among administrators who are accountable to politicians? – Anonymous Physicist Mar 16 at 2:46

It is counterproductive and anti-intellectual for a historian to "sanitize" history. One of the reasons to study history is to learn from it. If we provide only a nice-nicey view of history it is basically impossible to learn anything. We use innuendo instead of plain facts, perhaps, but that is just sweetener in a bitter pill.

Historically bad things have happened. The bible, for example, has some pretty brutal sections. Does a "christian" educator also want to sanitize that.

If you sanitize Huckleberry Finn, for example, the story loses its point entirely. It is what it is.

I don't think there are any black people in America over the age of two who aren't familiar with these terms and how they have been used. Sanitizing the history of racism only erases their experience to make others feel good about themselves.

We need to learn to behave better. Pretending that we haven't behaved badly doesn't help us get there. The fact that some dehumanizing terms are still used today is the problem, not that that we find them in the historical record.

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A perspective from a different but adjacent issue I have had to deal with - specialized historical scholarship that ends up relying on sources that incidentally use offensive/jarring terminology and stereotypes regarding (North American) Indigenous peoples. (Sometimes esp. in emotionally charged situations like race, reframing in terms of adjacent issue minefields is helpful to figure out best to proceed in your situation.)

The following has worked for me:

  1. Query whether using the source is worthwhile or appropriate. The question is not censorship of ideas, but rather than anachronistic and discriminatory attitudes can be deeply embedded in reasoning. Jarring language is a red or at least yellow flag to consider whether the point you are trying to engage with is biased more deeply than by language itself, and whether a more nuanced and recent treatment of the topic would serve your purposes better.

  2. Alert readers/learners if necessary. Regardless of whether the terminology is offensive or merely jarring, it is helpful for learners to be aware and prepared, to demonstrate you have considered the matter -- and to set up a fruitful discussion in class on the topic you want to engage on as well as on this side issue. And more broadly, to the extent something is trigger language or a trigger topic for someone, let them bypass. This is particularly important but not limited to situations where your audience may include people who have suffered the dehumanization implied in these terms.

  3. Where the charged language is integral to the topic you do seek to discuss, engage unashamedly with it, including its deleterious effects at the time and now. History happened. It is dysfunctional to hide it.

  4. If (and only if) it is not integral, paraphrase with the no-longer-appropriate terminology changed. This can even include making edits, in [ ] of course, to quotes you explicitly use. The alternative to engagement is not thoughtless repetition but visible, aware avoidance.

  5. If you're finding you're using #4 often, challenge your framing of the topic. You may claim it's not integral, but it feels it's more integral than you'd like, and engagement might be part of your intellectual responsibility to yourself and to your audience. This might in particular deliberately involve seeking out sources presenting historically marginalized perspectives as complements or alternatives, and/or explicitly addressing (and engaging with your audience on) the biases the portfolio of sources you are using is imposing on you.

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I agree with Buffy's answer that is is counterproductive to try to "sanitise" history. Whenever you are using some literary text, you should not censor any aspect of the text that would detract from understanding the point you are making. In some cases, if the text is used only to make a limited point that does not relate to the offending word, it may be okay to quote the relevant material with an editorial replacement of the offending word (e.g., replace it in the quote with "[epithet]"), but this should not be done if the loss of the actual word detracts from understanding the point being made.

This kind of censorship of the offending terminology is generally reserved for cases where the goal of discussion is on some other point, and the teacher feels that the use of the offending word would be an unecessary distraction to the point being made. However, even if you replace an actual epithet with some form of censoring, this will generally invite the reader/listener to imagine (or speculate) on what word was replaced, and they may end up imagining the excised word anyway. In any case, if the offending word is quoted without any censorship, university students should be old and ugly enough to understand the distinction between quotation of a document, versus support for its chosen language.

There are some particular contexts in academic work where racial epithets are of direct interest, such as in linguistic analysis and in some areas of legal analysis, such as those involving hate crimes, etc. In these contexts the particular epithet being used is extremely important, and so it is customary for the epithet under analysis to be used explicitly, without any censorship of the term (see e.g., Kennedy 1999, Kennedy 2003, Fogle 2013, Parkes and Jones 2008). In such papers it is common for the author to use quotations containing the epithet under analysis, and also to use this epithet explicitly for analytically purposes in their own writing. Indeed, if an author censored a word under analysis in this context, that would probably be considered to detract from the accuracy of the paper.

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