Dexter’s Words Spark Controversy

Use of N-Word Leads to Investigation

On February 5th, the Cambridge School Committee did something it has never done before: It passed a motion during one of its monthly meetings to investigate a School Committee member.

Emily Dexter, a member of the Committee, said the N-word on January 10th, 2019 during a class discussion on the use of the N-word and the filtering system that has been installed on the CPSD server. She had originally been invited by teacher Kevin Dua, along with School Committee member Lawrence Kimbrough and Superintendent Kenneth Salim, to discuss the school’s censoring of the word. Dexter did not direct the word at anyone.

The project was titled “RECLAIMING [N-word] v. Cracker: Editing Racial Context In/For Cambridge.” Dua, the advisor for the Black Student Union, assigned the project and set up the discussion after discovering that both the N-Word and “Cracker” were blocked on the CPSD server, explaining that “the lack of knowledge on why/how there was any justification for the word cracker to be put on the same ‘blocked’ level as the word [N-word] highlighted a lack of historical context knowledge on how those two key terms aren’t the same.”

Superintendent Salim sent an email to the CPSD community after the incident, writing that “One of the painful realities of living in our culture is that even well-intended statements and actions can have a harmful impact. There are no easy answers to the question of how to respond when good intentions produce a harmful impact. We must all, however, be acutely aware of the impact of our words and actions.” He continued, “The official who used the term reached out to the classroom to apologize … to the students and to hear their views.” However, there are conflicting reports regarding the nature of the follow up apology, as many of the witnesses claim the attempted apology to be “insincere.” Rahel Mahari, a junior at CRLS, characterizes the aforementioned apology. “She was making her apology seem more like a class. She was writing our questions on the board, even though many students already asked her to apologize up front.”

At the School Committee Meeting on the 5th, concerned citizens and students sat with crossed legs in the room filled above capacity, as many students and respected community leaders came for public comment. Among those in attendance were former mayors Kenneth Reeves and E. Denise Simmons, who denounced the actions of Dexter and asked the committee to pass the motion to investigate the incident, which was initially proposed by school committee member Manikka Bowman. Prior to this meeting, the School Committee had no policy or procedure for investigating the conduct of elected officials.  

“I was not OK with how she handled the situation.”

Students who spoke during the meeting, including CRLS Student Body President senior Grace Austin, junior Saija Scott, and Student Representative to the School Committee senior Antonio Escallon, emphasized that they felt that student voices had been left out of the conversation in the weeks since the incident occurred on January 10th, 2019.

“There’s also the hope that with an investigation, more information will come to light about what actually happened,” Scott said during the meeting. She noted that “the email sent out only told one side of the story.”

“It hurt that she didn’t apologize [immediately]. It hurt that she said the word,” Scott told the Register Forum after the meeting. “I was not okay with it. I was not okay with how she handled the situation afterward.”

At one point during the meeting, member Patty Nolan read aloud emails that the committee had received from civil rights activists Janet and Bob Moses defending Emily Dexter. Ms. Bowman, who is black, responded to Ms. Nolan’s comments saying, “What just happened in this moment with my colleague reading letters, as a white woman from black people to defend a white woman using the N-word, is why students make videos in this school district. It is tone deaf, and it perpetuates systematic racism in a way that is incredibly hurtful. I could not let this moment pass without saying that out loud. Completely inappropriate, and completely tone deaf.” The motion passed 6-1, with Dexter abstaining to vote for ethical reasons.

Escallon told the Register Forum after the meeting, “In an age when we complain about the lack of real honest perspective, when we’re so polarized, and when it’s so easy to manipulate people with points of view and history, [Patty Nolan] goes on to use those two emails, and say we are villainizing [Ms. Dexter]. We haven’t had the chance to villainize her because we just can’t say anything. Nobody has approached us.”

To many this incident is further evidence of discord regarding race relations in the city of Cambridge. In the past two years, the BSU volumes have been released, a BSU banner was defiled, a teacher of color was sent an inherently racist note, and other incidents have occured which bring to question the inclusivity of the school and city community.

While this incident sparked a controversy for the Cambridge community, Mr. Dua stressed that “Someone feeling offended doesn’t automatically [sic] mean that there’s not room for education and connecting. … It’s still feasible to try to do some good work [around] it.”


This piece also appears in our February 2019 print edition.