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Talk About the ‘N-Word’: UGA Student Organizes Concerts, Lectures and Discussions on Race

Kim Waters and Neal Lester met in 1969, when the young white girl and black boy were in fifth grade at a newly integrated school in nearby Jefferson. After graduating from high school together and keeping in touch after parting ways for college, the pair are working together to address issues of diversity and inclusion with the University of Georgia and the city of Athens.

Waters has organized a series of events that will take place from Sept. 13–17, both on campus and in town, in an effort to promote social healing and cross-cultural understanding. Waters is working with hip hop artist and DIG Fellow Mariah Copeland Parker, UGA NAACP President Mansur Buffins and hip hop activist Ricky Roberts (aka Ricky Simone) to bring the series to as many people as possible.

Waters, a doctoral student in UGA’s linguistics program, established the series of events as the capstone for her Diversity and Inclusion Graduate (DIG) Fellowship at UGA. The 18-month fellowship requires a five-day event with both campus and community outreach. Waters says she wanted to build an event around Lester, “a remarkable force in community organization.”

Lester, Foundation Professor of English at Arizona State University and founding director of the award-winning Project Humanities initiative, is the short-term visiting fellow at UGA’s Willson Center for the Humanities and keynote speaker for the final event of the series Saturday at the UGA Chapel. His topic: “Straight Talk About the N-Word.”

Lester’s Project Humanities has grown into a model for promoting dialogue between universities and the communities surrounding them, a model Athens needs badly. “It’s about mending something that’s been broken over and over again, that relationship between the black and white communities,” Waters says.

Waters came up with the idea for the series after teaching an English 1101 course in which she saw stark issues. “I had a class of 22 students, and there were people from all over the world, from South Georgia and North Georgia,” she says. “I started to realize that sometimes when people come to this school, Athens is the biggest town they’ve ever been in. I understand what that small-town mentality is, and it can be very insular. I started to see a lack of understanding of other perspectives in that class, and all this time I’m in the DIG fellowship, and I’m thinking about how to help raise awareness of that idea of seeing through someone else’s eyes or walking in someone else’s shoes.”

The series encompasses many topics: children’s literature, black appropriation in hip hop, diversity and inclusion in curriculum, representation of black males and racial slurs. The target audience is anyone willing to open their hearts and minds to the life experiences of others.

Waters says she used to be one of those people who said, “I don’t see color,” but now realizes how wrong that mindset is. She says people are different colors, and because they are different colors, they have different life experiences and carry different baggage, and claiming color-blindness ultimately does everybody a disservice because “then you lose the creativity, the spark, the joy that comes from being individuals.”

She hopes that through the series, others can feel something similar to what she feels during what she calls a “philosophical awakening.”

“If you listen to my voice on the phone, it is a white voice. If I walk into a place, I’m in a white skin,” she says. “If I want to buy cosmetics or flesh-colored underclothing, there is something that matches my skin tone. Those seem like inconsequential things, but those things are not available to everybody else, and if somebody’s voice doesn’t sound white, they may not get the interview just because they call and ask, so there is a thing that is white privilege.”

Waters hopes to see a diverse audience, including professors who want to learn to help their non-white students feel engaged, interested and welcome; young black men, to share what issues that particular group of people faces; and others who want to learn how to be supportive. She’s encouraging the community to come to the hip hop showcase featuring classic Athens acts, some that haven’t performed live in years.

“We know a lot of students leave college because they feel invisible or unwelcome or that they don’t belong,” Waters says. And that’s something she’s trying to change, quoting the African American College Funds slogan, “a mind is a terrible thing to waste.”

The UGA Graduate School, the Franklin College, the Creative Writing Program and the Georgia NAACP are co-sponsoring the series. Other speakers will include community activists Life the Griot, Broderick Flanigan and Fred Smith, Athens hip hop artist Versatyle tha Wildchyld and Macon MC G Twin the General.

Events are open to the public unless otherwise noted.

Tuesday, Sept. 13

Live hip hop performances and voter registration drive

Tate Center Plaza, 11:30 a.m.–1:30 p.m.

“Playing for Laughs: Cultural Appropriation in Hip Hop”

Athens-Clarke County Library, 6–8 p.m.

Wednesday, Sept. 14

Live hip hop performances and voter registration drive

Tate Center Plaza, 11:30 a.m.–1:30 p.m.

“Once Upon a Time in a Different World: Representation, Controversy and Celebration in African-American Children’s Literature”

Miller Learning Center, room 214, 1:15–4:30 p.m. (open to graduate students and faculty only)

Thursday, Sept. 15

Live hip hop performances and voter registration drive

Tate Center Plaza, 11:30 a.m.–1:30 p.m.

“Incuding Inclusion: Bringing Diversity and Inclusion Perspectives to Diverse Curricula”

Special Collections Library, room 277, 2–4 p.m. (open to faculty only)

Friday, Sept. 16

“Fear of a Black Planet: Representations of Black Males, Past and Present”

Special Collections Library, room 277, 4–6 p.m. (includes free food)

Saturday, Sept. 17

Hip hop showcase, voter registration drive and keynote address: “Straight Talk About the N Word”

UGA Chapel, 2–4 p.m.