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Last week, Cerenity Whiting, a fifth-grade African-American student in Pinellas County, Florida, became distressed as her class read K.L. Going’s The Liberation of Gabriel King, a book about a black girl facing her fear of the Klu Klux Klan.

In a de-contextualized passage of the fictional book, a white character refers to a black girl as “nigger.”

Like many who confront the legacy of white supremacy and racism in America, Whiting was unsettled by the derogatory word.   And after her mother found out what happened, she called for the book to be removed from classrooms.

“The word wasn’t right and I got uncomfortable.”-Cerenity Whiting

“This is a useless word and I feel like they can get their point across without using this word,” Whiting’s mother complained.

But can the implications of the KKK’s hateful views be accurately taught without first acknowledging that such views exist?  Can derogatory words have educational value?

Despite Gabriel King’s use of “nigger”, the Pinellas County School District found educational value in the book, which The Kirkus Review lauds as a tale in which “friends and their community come together to stand up against the evil within.”

Moreover, in teaching the history of race in America, educators who contextualize racist language in the appropriate historical and social context can deliver  a valuable lesson.

By encouraging students to ask questions in class and encouraging parents to continue difficult conversations at home, educators equip students with the ability to process feelings of discomfort as they navigate the harsh realities of modern racism and social injustice.

In this case, Whiting shared her discomfort with her mother.  Other children dealing with similarly complex emotions may not feel comfortable addressing them at home.  For children in this position, it is especially important for schools to create an open and judgment-free environment.

Pinellas County School District policy calls for schools to notify parents before teaching sensitive materials.  In a statement released on September 1, the district announced plans to review whether the school adequately followed the policy in this case.

NCAC is monitoring this incident to ensure that the Pinellas County policies preserve the free speech rights of all students.

Stay tuned for updates.