Tolerating Intolerance: How Milken Handles the N-Word


The division 9/10 Zoom started like any other. Acoustic music was played by 10th grader Zev Gaslin as students and faculty popped in as small boxes on the Zoom screen, the participant numbers rising to the hundreds, then the two hundreds. Ms. Daryni and Mr. Scarlata, 9/10 Division faculty leaders, slowly started the meeting as more late-comers arrived, introducing the agenda and beginning to list its innocuous contents. But as they began to move into their first activity, something unexpected happened. An unfamiliar sound issued from the Zoom. A low, gravelly voice, saying a word over and over again that sent chills down my spine. The N-word rang out in the Zoom over and over again, and everyone froze, paralyzed by the word. As a white, Jewish day school student, I was taught that the N-word wasn’t supposed to be said, ever, and there were no exceptions to that rule. Although the shortening of it sounds childish, it was never to be said, and only alluded to in educational settings, and as always as its compressed form: “the N-word.” And yet here was a student, with a lowercase, generically Jewish name, saying it casually and repeatedly. When, finally, the Zoom bomber was kicked off, the meeting was quickly continued until, like a planned attack, another participant unmuted and began saying the N-word. Over and over again. Unmuting when the teachers muted them, they only stopped when they were forcefully removed from the virtual setting. The teachers recovered quickly and continued the Zoom, but once it was over, what struck me was not the lack of security on a school Zoom. And it wasn’t the fact that this ugly, despicable word was being used on a service holiday meant to uplift those who had been pushed down by that word for decades. It was the nonchalant way in which the word was used, nonchalant in its understanding of the power held by the word, reveling in its taboo. And the fact that I was all too familiar with the way it was being used. 

Here at Milken, the week of January 18th, 2021 was designated as Martin Luther King Jr. week. MLK Day was really that Monday, but the week following was used as an opportunity to learn, reflect, and act on racial inequality and the never-ending struggle for equality and equity. Sessions were held on the burden that racial minorities face when it comes to incarceration, on the way in which red-lining has widened the wealth gap between who were deemed “desirable” and “undesirable” in the early 20th century, on modern-day protest and protest art. The list of lunch-time sessions, all based on the Jewish value of areivut, responsibility and justice, were impressive and topical. More than that, they were important for Milken students, whose lives are often far removed from the complex social issues that cause inequality and social unrest within America. That 9/10 Division Zoom was supposed to kick off that week of areivut. Although students may not have attended the sessions that the 9/10 Division Zoom was advertising, it certainly pointed to the real problem that the areivut week was trying to address. 

The spoken word might be one of the most powerful weapons of the modern-era. Of any other tool, it has the most lasting impact and is the farthest reaching. On social media, language can fly across the world in less than a second, affecting millions. Specific language or vernacular can come to define a nation, a people, a generation. Especially in insular communities, like Milken, words can be traded, gaining traction as they bounce and rebound off the walls of the Milken bubble. But most importantly, language can have a lasting impact on those for whom those words were never intended, and that is really its greatest strength, and curse. That is why the effect of the usage of the N-word on Milken’s campus is so harmful and so impactful, and why there must be action taken to address this issue.

Exposure to the N-word is a common occurrence in the lives of almost every American teen. The N-word, used in the context of music sung by Black artists, is often used to empower or take back a term that was used to degrade and oppress. It’s present in TV shows and movies, sometimes used casually and sometimes used to make an impact. The classic American novel To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, a staple of many American middle schools, including Milken Middle School, features the N-word as a derogatory term used against one of the protagonists of the story. It is presented as an important and significant book, yet rarely is the conversation had about how to approach the racist language, including the N-word, used within the novel by its antagonists. The same goes for homophobic, xenophobic, and otherwise racist language: it fills our culture, our news, and our feeds, but rarely is it adressed in an educational context. Especially at Milken, a school with a diverse educational and administrative body, it is vital to understand the historical context and significance of racial slurs, as a preventative, rather than punitive, measure. Because racial slurs are not just used by Zoom bombers who may or may not go to Milken. They are used on Milken’s campus, virtual and physical, by Milken students. This behavior is not unique to Milken; it is a reality in almost every American high school. 

According to Mr. Scarlata, Milken’s 9/10 Division Dean, immediately after the incident occured the administration began looking at Zoom settings and protocols in order to eradicate the Zoom bombings that kept occuring, including adding more teachers to divison meetings to monitor the waiting room, and avoiding the dreaded “Admit All” option. During an interview on the topic, he emphasized that it was an external issue, and that no one had any reason to believe that the intruder came from within Milken. However, no steps were taken after the Zoom bombings to reflect on the use of the N-word, or address the issue beyond a firm denunciation of the event after the intruder was kicked out of the initial Zoom meeting. 

Language is often seen as less impactful than violence or acts of aggression. When the words are spoken, they seem to disappear with little consequence, only heard by those to whom they are addressed. However, in a school environment where privacy is rare, language spreads more quickly than can be tracked. Even when said casually, without malicious intent, even sung in a song, it still has a widespread effect, even at Milken. Ms. Terk, a Milken Middle School Humanities teacher and department chair, said in an interview conducted about language used on Milken’s campus that, “if there’s no evidence that [the language] is not acceptable, then by virtue of how either peers, or teachers, or the administration, or parents [respond], then there might be a belief that is perpetuated that it is okay to say these things.” Even if there are systems in place to punish or educate those who use racist, homophobic, or otherwise unacceptable language, there is no way to punish all of those who take part in its usage. Continuing, Ms. Terk said, “that reduces…our awareness of the harm of the word, whatever that word is.” 

It’s easy to think of Milken as a fairly undiverse school, but in reality, Milken is home to many students, faculty, administrators, and staff of color, who may not be directly targeted by this language, but are often the unwilling beneficiaries of it. About this use of language, Mr. Kim Seda, who teaches Milken’s Race, Class, and Gender class, said, “It could create a culture of intolerance…if it’s not checked.” Although this language, the occasional dropping of the N-word or “no homo” may not be said with malicious intent, Milken is full of people for whom these words are aggressive and painful. And these words have a greater effect on Milken’s community; as Ms. Terk said, “it certainly affects your sense of community, your sense of belonging, and your sense of whether you’re truly welcome and you’re truly respected or not.”

This issue is not new for Milken; the school currently has programs in place for students to go through a process of t’shuvah, or repentance, for their actions or words, and there are curricula at Milken designed to educate specifically about racial language. The t’shuvah process at Milken is not a process with the intent to punish, but rather to repair the damage caused. The Milken t’shuvah process begins with the distinction between those who know what they did was wrong, and those who don’t understand why they are being punished. Explaining the t’shuvah process, Rabbi David Saiger, Milken’s 9/10 Division rabbi, said, “Depending on…their awareness of what was wrong about what they said or did and why it was wrong, the t’shuvah process might have to start with an education process.” The education could be twofold: understanding why, from a Jewish perspective, what they did was wrong, and from a historical perspective. Despite the fact that the t’shuvah program does not have repeat offenders, it also does not get many participants, and the only ones who take part in the program are the ones who are actively caught. 

Milken’s high school and middle school curriculum also have ways of addressing racial language. Ms. Terk explained that in both English and history, the students confronted racial slurs against Black and Latino people in American history and in novels such as To Kill a Mockingbird, and engaged in discussions about the implications of its usage. In Milken’s high school, Mr. Karpel, a 9th and 12th grade English teacher at Milken, explained that the 12th grade English college prep and honors curriculum is split into units dealing with race and gender. In the class, they read books such as Homegoing by Yaa Gyasai, a novel following both enslaved and non-enslaved Africans coming to America, and it is there, Mr. Karpel says, that they begin to address the N-word. Mr. Karpel emphasizes the importance of the examination of language: “every English class is about language, but I make this a little more explicitly about language at times, because we’re examining diction and I think part of examining diction is ‘what are the words that we use to talk about people.’” As the year goes on they continue to read literature that addresses racial injustice, but they also look at lyrics of songs by artists like Kendrick Lamar. As the unit comes to a close, Mr. Karpel says that many students begin to examine their own use of the N-word, sung, said, or otherwise, and most come to the conclusion that they should not say it in any context.  These curriculums dealing with language are vital for Milken students, but they come at the very beginning and the very end of a Milken student’s time at the school. During the formative middle years, from 9th to 11th grade, Milken students have no lesson built into the curriculum dealing specifically with race and how to address issues surrounding race.  9th and 10th grade advisories are dedicated to subjects like cyberbullying and learning about empathy; important subjects, but there’s so much more that has to be addressed than good study methods for growing students who enjoy testing the boundaries of what’s deemed acceptable. If this year and this past summer have proved anything, it’s that we need more than a once-a-year areivut sessions or two curriculums worth of material to educate Milken students about language.  

Milken, like any other school, should be a place where students feel comfortable experimenting and learning from one another. Learning how to express oneself is a fundamental part of adolescence. Let me be clear, this language is not totally widespread on Milken’s campus. There’s no rash of racist language erupting in the amphitheater or the library. But in the words of Mr. Kim-Seda, “hearing this language is enough and too much.” The lack of awareness about the impact of language has a lasting effect beyond Milken. If Milken truly wants to foster a community of learners who will build our future world, as our mission statement reads, then they must teach them how to speak and behave in a way that is not exclusionary but self-aware and understanding of the implications of their language. Putting it succinctly, Ms. Terk said, “we should not tolerate intolerance.” Students shouldn’t, teachers shouldn’t, and Milken shouldn’t either.