Friday, 8 June 2012

Teaching in Egypt (12): 'Martin Luther King was an activist for the niggers'

The English class I teach is a conversation class, so my main goal is to get my students to speak as much as possible. 

One very easy solution to that is to have students do presentations. 
This has been fairly trail and error so far. At first I had them talk about their hobbies, but that just resulted in my students jabbering on about how much time they spent on Facebook everyday, and how they love going to the cinema (they're not very big on hobbies here, or so it seems).

Then I had them pick their 'favourite Egyptian historical site' but that turned into ten presentations about how fun it is to go to Alexandria (and they were mainly talking about the beach, as opposed to, say, that big library that's rumoured to be over there). 

After that, I had them pick their 'favourite Egyptian historical figure', but that ended in me having to listen to four presentations on Sadat, three on Nasser and one on Mubarak. Now I just pick the historical person for them. I've had them do presentations on Margaret Thatcher, Gertrude Bell, George W. Bush, Yasser Arafat and Nelson Mandela, among others. 

Added bonus in this for the students is that they get to learn about a person they most likely were not at all or not very familiar with. 

The other day a student had to do his presentation on Martin Luther King. I had asked them to specifically highlight the biggest achievements of the historical figure they were presenting on. So this guy starts of his presentation by saying: "Martin Luther King was an activist for the niggers". 

"He helped them get their rights, because America was a very segregated community at the time. The niggers had no rights." 

At this point I felt I had to interrupt and correct my student on his choice of words. I explained to them that that particular word is very offensive and that they should basically never use it. 

"But they say that in movies all the time", was their defence. "Yeah, they suck 'fuck' in movies a lot too, I wouldn't recommend using that word either", I replied.  

One thing that mystifies me about this: usually they just copy and paste the Wikipedia entry for the person and construct their presentation around that. I'm pretty sure the word 'nigger' is nowhere to be found in the entry for Martin Luther King

Yet this is the second student to use this word in a presentation on King. Could it be that somehow, in the English curriculum for Egyptian schools, or in some Arabic to English dictionaries, 'nigger' is presented as an acceptable synonym for 'black person'? If so, the Egyptian education system is faring even worse than I had thought it to do up to now. 


  1. Though primarily about Lebanon, there is also a reference to Egypt in the following article:


    1. Thanks for the link! I don't it is racism in this case though, more ignorance.
      But you comment does remind me of a very racist incident that happened here in Egypt that I might blog about soon.