When A Fifth-Grader Calls You Nigger



Well. I guess it had to happen: I’m a black teacher in the Middle East and, if we’re being frank, the kids here have serious behavioral issues. A good chunk of them (or maybe it’s just the most vocal ones) adore pushing your buttons. If there is any way that they can make you angry or sad or unhappy, they’ll do it – and then gloat about it: “We made Miss Jessica cry five times last year”.

It started with the irritating, painfully unoriginal, chants of “Miss South Africa” as I passed by a particular group of fifth grade girls; it galled me but, soon enough, either they got bored or scared, but they stopped. I had almost forgotten about the anomaly that I present in their eyes – a dark-skinned black woman who is not, in fact, their nanny who carries their bags and is forced to take their shit, but the person who is supposed to teach and discipline them…what?

So I shouldn’t have been so surprised at what happened a few days ago. I was leaving a grade five class on a relative high: I had maintained discipline the whole class and had managed to keep us on track academically – job well done. I glimpsed two students who sit next to each other and who, coincidentally, jointly lost points for their team in a vocabulary game; they were in some kind of heated argument, probably about whose fault it was. I exited the hallway and entered ear-shot just in time to hear Abdullah calling Ahmed a baby. Now, Ahmed doesn’t take kindly to being insulted, he’s a bit of a whiny kid and he lashes out when he feels attacked. So – and this part is in Arabic –  Ahmed screws up his face and flings some short phrase at Abdullah and storms off. Abdullah, who is part American, blinks and turns to me, saying, “Miss, he just called you a bad word.”

“What did he say?”

“He called you the N-word.”

Had to happen.

And this is where I lost my cool. I roared at Ahmed to get back to me and began to lay into him, reminding him that he doesn’t even know what that word means and how dare he say that about a teacher and who in the heck does he think he is? I’m sure I stopped being coherent very quickly and I walked off mid-sentence. He later claimed to have been referring to Abdullah, the light-skinned American-Arab, and not his brown-skinned teacher, when he used the slur. Great.

Truth be told, I’m almost positive he doesn’t know what that word means  and I (need to) believe that he was referring to Abdullah– I suspect he wanted to come up with the most painful word he could think of to hurt someone who was hurting him. And that’s what freaks me out the most: why should a fifth grader be trying to find the most effective word…to wound another fifth grader? And why was it this racial slur that popped into his head?

The difficulty in this whole thing is that I’m far from home, where people would be able to more easily understand the issue and I have to develop some kind of survival strategy. When I went to the supervisor to explain what happened, I had to spend just as much time explaining why the word was so deeply offensive – even if it wasn’t used against me. I’m not sure I did a solid enough job because he didn’t seem very outraged. And what’s the long-term plan? Because I’m sure this won’t be the last time someone says the word – and I can’t undertake a one-woman crusade to enlighten the masses.

I’m not sure how to digest the incident.

The reason I lost it on Ahmed and not, say, on the child who dropped a pencil in my class and said “fucking nigger!” with a smile as he not-so-slyly looked up to see if it had made me angry, was because Ahmed is a good kid, a generally respectful child who, like too many of the other kids, is too quick to use a word that is older, bigger, and dirtier than he will ever understand. And all this, over a vocab game they lost.

Sometimes, it feels like I work at an asylum. The smartest teachers inoculate themselves with any one of the tropes that’ll get them to 4pm.

“They don’t know better – they get it from their parents”

“Remember, they’re going to try to break you – don’t let them”

“Rise above their garbage”

“Shame and embarrass them first and you’ll be in control”

“Just survive.”

My question is: is it really worth it? How do people submit to a career of this kind of daily warfare? Will these kids ever appreciate what was done for them? And, good grief, is this how my elementary school teachers felt?


Karen* wrote this article for Flux, a forum for those of us encountering adulthood. She is a twenty-something expat, teaching English in the Middle East.

*This piece was submitted anonymously and some fringe information has been altered.


  1. Here’s my take on the situation:

    First, in any given situation, a person chooses to take offense or not take offense. You have that choice and you’re responsible for how you decide to act. Nobody can take that from you. Check out Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl if you want more perspective.

    Second, why do you think anyone outside America should care about the American significance behind a word? Indeed, this post is quite enthnocentric and suggests a fair amount of cultural imperialism on your behalf. You’re likely being written off as a culturally ignorant, arrogant American by the supervisor.

    Third, Ahmed is just a kid. There’s no such thing as an innately good or bad kid. While issuing moral judgement never helps a situation, a habit of presence and describing solely what’s before you will help you control your own mind and emotions so you can better understand the moving parts.

    Last, Abdullah sounds like your real problem, and you should watch him closely. He’s manipulating you, and it wouldn’t surprise me if he also plays his classmates, which could explain Ahmed’s anger. If Abdullah is sociopathic to any degree, he will hurt you and turn people against you if you aren’t in tight control over your mind and emotions.

    I for one love war-waging against the unscrupulous, but then I don’t have much in the way of scruples anyway.


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