‘N-bomb’ controversy at Highland Park schools sparks walkout

Solomon Gustavo/MSR News Highland Park High School students protesting on May 24

Students at Highland Park Senior High School staged a walkout last week to protest the use of the N-word by a White teacher at Highland Park Middle School.

Shortly after 10 am on May 24, students from the senior high school’s Black Student Union (BSU) filed into the school’s courtyard carrying protests signs. One sign had song lyrics from a Joyner Lucas song explaining Black ownership over the N-word, with this line: “And when you use it, we know there’s a double meaning under.”

What started with a handful of organizers and some 25 onlookers multiplied to over 200 students and school staff. The school administration, who the BSU says has been supportive throughout, set up a speaker and microphone so students could be heard over the growing crowd.

“It was very successful,” said BSU member Saleh Jacoway of the walkout-turned-rally, adding she was “very pleased” by the turnout.

The incident in question

The video, a May 9 Snapchat caught by a student captioning the incident “Brooo,” is short and cuts in moments before Wendi Brilowski, a White middle school teacher, drops the N-word.

Brilowski is seen complaining to a man while being recorded on camera, “… I just walk around the room, and I just pick on them.”  

“Well…” the man replies. He appears to be an arbitrator between Brilowski and a Black student.  

Brilowski continues with enough momentum that a pre-teen knew to hit record: “‘Cause they’re Black. And they’re the only f**king n****rs doing any work.”

“I’m sorry?” a third voice interjects as Brilowski’s voice fades away with a few mumbles.

“No, no, no,” the man cuts off the third voice. “If that’s what you’ve been saying. She’s repeating what you’re saying.”

The context is not completely clear. It appears a Black student felt Brilowski was singling Blacks out and told Brilowski such, using an expletive and the N-word. Brilowski appears to have brought in the man, who is an administrator at the school, and, while explaining the circumstances of the standoff to him, repeated the N-word as used by the student. Then it appears the Black student takes offense to Brilowski’s use of the N-word, and the man, whose race is unclear, shouts the Black student down.

What is clear is that a White teacher was captured on camera dropping the N-word with a hard “er.”

The reverberations were felt around the world, including international news outlets and Instagram blog aggregators. Brilowski was subsequently put on administrative leave and later resigned.

Time for action

The emotional fallout, however, lingered on the St. Paul block where both Highland Park Middle and Highland Park Senior High School sit. “I was shocked,” said Highland Park Senior BSU President Bilikis Amode.

And it wasn’t just one teacher who used the derogatory term. After the initial boom came an aftershock — BSU students say a White high school teacher used the full N-word while describing the incident to a class.

In either instance, what matters most to the students is that Brilowski and the high school teacher accused of also saying the word are both White.

Jacoway, 16, said the N-bomb forced her to wonder what her educators really feel about her, which she said made her incredibly uncomfortable. “We started to second-guess our teachers.”

The hallways were also split following the incidents, said Jacoway. Those taking offense, she noted, were mainly Blacks and a few Whites. Others, primarily Latinx, White and Biracial students, voiced indifference, Jacoway said, referencing rampant use of the N-word in rap music as justification.

According to Amode, some non-BSU Black students came to the group hoping it would take action. “I didn’t know what to do,” said the senior. A member suggested a student walkout in the first meeting on the matter. The group, cognizant of the school year winding down, quickly rallied around the idea.

The walkout is a tactic used last year by students protesting gun violence after the Parkland, Fl. school shooting. BSU members say Highland Park High administration at first balked at the idea of another walkout, but fully supported the students when they committed to the plan.

Students said the walkout’s mission — making clear that the use of the N-word by anyone who is not Black — is deeply rooted in pain.

“It hurts me,” said Jacoway. “I believe as a society that we should understand language boundaries as far as what can or should not be said to different groups.”

She said the baggage from the word in eras of slavery and Jim Crow are still around, and that Black people endearingly call each other variations of the N-word as a way to lighten the load.

Jacoway feels non-Blacks try to minimize the word even further in the hopes of using it as Blacks do. But, when non-Blacks use it, she said, it’s far too loaded to be anything but hurtful.

Jacoway said the walkout ended the year on a high note and, hopefully, not just for the Highland community, but for the entire St. Paul Schools system.

She said more work needs to be done. She hopes to collaborate with students from other Black Student Union at other schools next school year to “make education environments safer and a lot more comfortable.”

  1. N-word by anyone is derogatory to me. How can my use make it “lighter” [consider the use of that word] to my brother and sister than a “lighter” person saying it to me?
    Both uses are derogatory and heavy, and if said to me, there will be a conversation. My brother and sister cannot endear me with negative talk simply because we are shades of brown.
    Don’t be deceived my young brothers and sisters…the meaning of a word does not change simply because of the melanin in your skin when you speak it. Learn the truth. Do not alter truth to fit your underdeveloped mindsets.
    Peace to all.