In leading a classroom discussion about the evolution of language, the Sacramento-area teacher introduced the offensive word. Now some parents and the school district want to take away her teaching credential.
By Ginger Rutland, Special to CalMatters
Ginger Rutland is a former Sacramento Bee editorial writer.
A year ago, Katherine Sanders was a respected Spanish teacher at a 7th to 12th grade International Baccalaureate school within the Sacramento City School District. Today, the single mother of 14-year-old twin boys is suspended without pay, afraid she might lose her home in Oak Park and threatened with the loss of her teaching credential, all because of the N-word.
Two days before the school year ended in 2021, students in Sanders’ fourth_period class were writing in their journals, talking, doodling. Sanders noticed one girl had written the words “F… the Patriarchy” — and not just the initial “F.”
Aha! A teachable moment, she thought.
She wrote “patriarchy” on the board and asked the students if they knew what it meant. They didn’t.
She defined it. Then she wrote F***K on the board and asked what it meant. What followed was a discussion about how that word has evolved from its crude original meaning to almost a superlative in hipster-speak. She asked: “Did its use cheapen their argument?”
Excited by the enthusiastic engagement of one class, Sanders revived the discussion with her next. They knew what “patriarchy” meant. One girl said she found the F-word offensive.
A boy disagreed. He said the word was used all the time. Does that make it less offensive, Sanders wanted to know.
A student began recording the discussion.
“I know the F-word is something we hear constantly,” Sanders is heard saying. “It used to be a nasty, ugly word and now it’s like the word ‘n…er,’ which everybody says, or ‘n…ga’.” (She said the word.)
One student is heard saying,“Who says that’s not a horrible word?”
Sanders responds: “Where I live, I hear it all the time.”
That’s when the 15-second recording ends. Sanders says she did not condone the use of the word. It was meant to be an academic discussion about the power of words and the evolution of language.
The student who recorded the snippet shared it with other students. One shared it with her mother, who complained to school authorities.
Sanders was called into the principal’s office, where she admitted saying the word. She sent letters of apology to the school administration and to every one of her fellow teachers at the school. She apologized in person to the students.
A few weeks later, while teaching her second day of summer school, she was notified she was being released from her contract.
The recording had gone viral. Self-appointed community activists held press conferences, accusing Sanders of using the word regularly in her classroom, an accusation she vehemently denies and that no one has been able to substantiate. They demanded that she be fired.
Sanders was suspended without pay and notified she would be terminated.
Advised by her union lawyers, Sanders has not been speaking to the media for fear what she says will be misconstrued. A friend of her mother is a friend of mine, which is why I wrote what you are reading.
As an old Black woman, I have a complicated relationship with the N-word. It was used in my childhood home almost as a term of endearment. My father’s best friend was his “favorite N-word.” My mother wrote a memoir about growing up in the segregated South and moving to Sacramento in the 1950s. The word appears in her book.
When my daughter read “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” in high school, the teacher instructed the class to substitute “Ninja Jim” for “N-word Jim,” a fix so tortured I found it comical. For me, it gave the forbidden word greater weight.
A few weeks ago, I attended the Sacramento Theatre Company’s performance of “Fences,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by the Black playwright August Wilson. The N-word is throughout. Should “Fences” never be read or performed in a Sacramento high school?
Hasan McWhorter, a vice president with the Sacramento City Teachers Association (an African American), thinks the whole incident has been blown out of proportion. He says the district acknowledges the word “was not used maliciously.” As he sees it, ”A Caucasian woman used the N-word. It was recorded and it gave some people the opportunity to gain some notoriety.” I agree.
And I resent it. I resent that the loudest and crankiest get to claim to speak for Black people. They don’t speak for me.
I do think Sanders made a mistake. Her actions were clueless. In retrospect, she thinks so too. “I put my foot all the way down my throat,” she laments. But in a rational world, she would be pulled aside quietly and told, “Don’t do it again.”
And that would be the end of it.
Ginger Rutland has previously written about the gubernatorial recall election.