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Encouraging Agitation: An African American Woman’s Response To Words That Wound

by Jeanine Staples - May 23, 2007

This manuscript highlights the growing pervasiveness of racist and sexist language in public discourse and this language's intersection with education for social justice generally and English/Language Arts classrooms specifically. It contextualizes ways literacy educators can employ activities that highlight and criticize this language and advocates for the facilitation of what is called an Agitator identity trait among students - one that encompasses critical consciousness and socio-political action at the site of language inquiry. The manuscript is a call to action that suggests it is the responsibility of all teachers of language and literacy to defy widespread, unchecked use of language that wounds, rendering individuals, groups, and therefore, society, depreciated and filled with potentially killing rage.


Hurtful words are frequently exerted in public discourse. Words that wound, characterizing individuals as inadequate and therefore less valuable than those considered normal and favorable, are used to subjugate. Words like nappy headed hos, bitches, dykes, kikes, and niggers come to mind. With a greater rate of recurrence, individuals who use these words openly or privately and can be considered power brokers because of their access to broad communication arenas in the public domain, wield the power of these words and wreak havoc on their listeners. Propagators of racist and sexist language incite disorder and the deconstruction of humanity for several reasons. First, they disregard the insidious nature of wounding words. This ignorance breeds delusions and contempt, which are the bedrocks of hate and violence. Secondly, they seem to have little understanding of the vigor of words in general. Invocations of spoken words affect change. This is true because they enact an interaction of intention and signification between and among speakers and listeners. Though it is possible to lace this interaction with kindness and respect it is more commonly laden with misinformation and fears. Neither acknowledgement nor denial can abstract this truth. Positionality also plays a role in the turmoil. The power brokers who use wounding words often represent some faction of the centralized majority. As a result, their words arguably indicate some undercurrent of viciousness in society at large. Missed opportunities to indict their usage incite complicity in potentially wide-spread hate-mongering.

Consequences of spoken words should be of great interest to English and Language Arts educators in particular because most students learn the impact of words and language under the tutelage of their teachers. Students’ language learning yields another type of influence, one that can intercept aforementioned power brokers and their discord. Teaching students concrete ways that words wound can inspire empathy and active participation in social justice work. It can contribute to whole bodies of citizens reared in critical consciousness and able to counter word usage they understand as detrimental to individuals and society. Discussions about language diversity then—while commonly associated with second language acquisition and development—should also include attention to the multiplicity of meanings words convey and the weight those meanings have in relationship to the perceived significance of human beings. The meanings of wounding words and their negative impact on perceptions of human worth can be thought of as language adversity. Language adversity occurs when words are used to inflict or provoke hardship. It is what happens when hurtful words, with their barrage of meanings, are used to deduce people in ways that trivialize not only the individual, but also the group to which they identify.


As an African American woman literacy teacher and researcher I have thought about ways to attend to instances of language adversity in my classroom, particularly with regard to women. Based on years of work with “disengaged”1 African American urban adolescent readers and writers both in and out of schools, I have found that several activities support awareness of language adversity. Activities that can be thought of as native to English/Language Arts classrooms—responsive discussions, free writing, round-robins, mapping, journaling and critical questioning—can all be used to couch thought on word meaning and usage. One can read or listen to Don Imus and Mike McGuirk’s April 2007 comments about the Rutgers University women’s basketball team and discuss the denotations of their words. One could read or listen to Snoop Dogg’s “Break a Bitch Till I Die!” or “Can You Control Yo Hoe?” song lyrics highlight, and define each adverse word or phrase. A teacher might also decide to read, discuss, and write responsively to radio-talk show host Michael Savage’s derogatory comments about Diane Sawyer as a “lying whore” or Barbara Walters as a “double-talking slut.”

For an international perspective, one could engage and workshop excerpts from the October 2006 compilation report issued by the United Nations. It is a composite of many studies of bride burnings, honor killings, female infanticide, sex trafficking, mass rape as a weapon of war and other hideous forms of violence against women. Of course, the type of language that makes this type of sadism possible is also discussed in the document. Another approach involves drawing students’ attention to current newspaper articles that highlight the problem of language adversity and facilitating responsive discussions and journal writings about the phenomenon. A more specific example can be seen in the Rwandan massacres of the 1990s. With regard to the ways politically and socially powerful individuals can “exploit the power of social patterns” with language, Mark Buchanan (2007) of the New York Times writes that the word “subhuman” was used to describe the Tutsi tribe in the months prior to the Rwandan genocide. The implication was that this word, among others that wound, bore a direct correlation to compliance with hate mongering, war crimes, and a type of irrationally justified acquiescence to participation in torture and murder.

While reading, writing and discussion activities offer points of entry to conversations about language adversity, they frequently leave something to be desired. The kind of outrage and action that many English/Language Arts teachers long for within our classroom communities are often missing. Their absence is due to the fact that, usually, students do not know what to do with these words. Feeling shocked, uncomfortable, or even angry about them seems commonsensical. Determining that something should be done in protest is reasonable. However, an understanding of what that “something” is frequently remains underdeveloped and with it, the move to action. This is the case because English/Language Arts activities that center language adversity need an accompanying attitude, one that bears a framework for movement. My compounded identity has afforded me an attitude with this attribute. It is something I call the Agitator identity trait.

My Agitator identity developed while I was a teacher and doctoral candidate. It emerged in competition with an antithetical attitude, one that shies away from appropriating and interrogating wounding words because of intimidation or a wrongfully perceived helplessness. The complacent attitude is a consequence of the Koon identity trait. My reference to kooning emerges from Spike Lee’s (2001) film Bamboozled. It is a satire of the African American presence in mass media. In the movie, Lee indicts the status quo for its tendency to require a degree of buffoonery from Black actors and actresses. He also indicts African Americans for their compliance with this expectation. Throughout the movie, Lee explores some historic and contemporary power structures that maintain the tenuous relationships between African Americans and European Americans. In addition, he portrays a series of common scenarios and language adversities African Americans face in industry settings. These scenarios depict the daunting choice one must make between the role of Koon and Agitator in relationship to language adversity and its social, political, and cultural consequences

A Koon is an individual who assists the perpetuation and standardization of a particular group as superior by forfeiting active resistances to wounding words and images, assuaging inflated egos, accommodating self-centered attempts at introspection, shunning self-reflexivity, and disregarding Afro-centric and other inclusive epistemologies and practices in one’s personal, professional and academic lives. An Agitator is an individual who repels censorship of self and “others” by critically questioning wounding words, images and practices that are rendered valid by senses of superiority, twisted humor or titillation. An Agitator openly and frequently indicts the White social and capitalist establishment and other domineering structures in societies, political arenas and economies. This denunciation is accomplished by provoking critical consciousness and advocating social justice work in one’s personal, professional and academic lives.

In the past, I used the word kooning to describe some of my behavior in graduate school and teacher preparation. I did so because at times I enacted the former trait over the latter in order to move through the system of academia and certification. I contend that all people of color (or otherwise marginalized individuals) who live or travel to any degree in white, middle class, heterosexist, mono-linguistic, male-centered America, koon at some time or another. My work now concentrates on processes that eliminate the kooning identity trait as it inevitably compromises intellectual work.2 It also leads to a drastic, intergenerational erosion of character, loss of credible substances of being, and collusion in the degradation of all people. I excise kooning by encouraging agitation in English/Language Arts education and the upset of words that wound.


The Agitator identity trait moves individuals to act. Its presence supports the elimination of kooning and takes for granted that one will do something to affront and eliminate wounding words and intercept their web of deleterious social effects. Encouraging students to assume the role of Agitator assists thinking through English/Language Arts activities that begin to counter the results of adverse words. Agitators upset words that wound by:

Assuming new words to describe the meaning and implications of demeaning ones

Placing oneself inside of controversial scenarios and commentaries, making words personal, more effecting, and fueling empathy

Generating critical “why” questions that explicate the insinuations of words and their impact on individuals and groups

Drawing attention to the social, historical and political impetuses of depreciating words

“Outing” the delusions and contempt that fester as a result of wounding words

Writing and broadcasting “counter narratives” that speak directly to words and word usage (Delgado & Stefanic, 2001)

Planning a means for private and public action that exposes, documents, educates and perpetuates knowledge about the effects of these words

Holding other Agitators accountable to resolutions for action, implementation of plans for action (rallies, publications, demonstrations, plays, press releases, concerts, lectures, fundraisers, shifts in familial dialogues and individual language choices, etc.), and reflection toward improvement of actions

When indoctrinated as real aspects of classroom cultures and rooted in pedagogical expectations, these practices can produce powerful individual voices of resistance. Over time, they can result in orchestras of collective voices that rise up against meta-narratives of ignorance and division. With developmentally appropriate iterations, the application of these practices can become expectations for all students. That is, with endorsement by leaders of English/ Language Arts education, the Agitator identity trait can become a tool for intervention and socio-political change, one that emerges from elementary, middle and high school classrooms and carries over to adulthood.


As language adversity rises in public discourse, we must learn ways to facilitate processes that combat words that wound. African American feminist epistemologies (Collins, 1990; Royster, 2000) provide information about historical and cultural ideologies of language and resistance. Queer theories of opposition (Blackburn, 2002/2003), make available information about youth work and language reclamation. Theories about the merger of linguistic and ethnic identities (Anzaldua, 2002) shed light on racial- and nationalized perspectives on linguistic variation, diversity and adversity. Ideas about language, cultural assimilation and formation of the self (Bakhtin, 1981) help form understandings of the social nature of dialogue. And, knowledge about the intersections of literacy, psychology, sociology and teaching (Chung & Pennebaker, 2007; Cushman, 1998; Knoblauch & Brannon, 1993; Pennebaker, 2002; Pennebaker & Stone, 2002), present information about the ways literacy/literary education intersect ideologies about the individual, groups, and society. It is imperative that we remember, as Bakhtin explained, “language, even at the level of individual words, serves as an arena where opposing ideologies of identity and exclusion play themselves out” (p. 18). With this notion in place, we can take for granted that our students need the social and cognitive practices to centralize these oppositions and deconstruct them for the betterment of democracy, inclusion, respect, and genuine appreciation of individuals and groups deemed “different” from them.


1 “Disengaged” means that my students resisted individual and collaborative interactions with texts (including conventional methods of reading and writing), participation in conversations with others about information found in texts, and producing works pertaining to, or answering questions about, what they did or did not understand about information within texts.

2 Intellectual work is the synergy of socially situated literacy practices and culturally situated knowledge produced at the intersection of adolescent literacies and popular culture narratives. This phenomenon is “intellectual” because it is inspired by the complexities of local knowledge. It is “work” because it is exerted through tensions within and among activities that couch the meanings and messages of various types of texts. Intellectual work is manifested when people are motivated to engage with texts and nurture a positive self-efficacy in relationship to activities that are meaningful to them. The results of sustained intellectual work are often evidenced by production of layered understandings and critical consciousness among individuals and/or groups.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: May 23, 2007
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 14496, Date Accessed: 5/27/2022 11:25:41 AM

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About the Author
  • Jeanine Staples
    University of Maryland, College Park
    E-mail Author
    JEANINE M. STAPLES is an Assistant Professor of Education in the Special Education Department of the University of Maryland College Park. Jeanine's scholarship uncovers the relationships that exist between literacies, media, adolescence, and teacher education. Using critical responsive interpretive frameworks, she examines the ways urban youth of color use and develop literacies over time and the ways their teachers can support and facilitate that work.
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