This So-Called Post-Post-Racial Life

August 10, 2009

Advice from My Graduate School Self re: “The N-word”

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: — pprscribe @ 5:19 am

The following post from my old blog I wrote during my PhD program. I am reflecting on this today as I begin my first day on my new job. Wish me luck that I do not—as happened in a recent dream—show up at the office wearing nothing but my blue fluffy towel and yellow shower cap…


I have gone many years without ever having had much occasion to speak it. Partly because I saw myself–and wanted others to see me–as a “nice” person, not wanting to hurt someone’s feelings. Partly because I was afraid of what the consequences of saying it might be. Partly because I figured that it was the type of word that, once uttered, could not be taken back to reverse whatever damage had been done. Partly because saying it sounds hateful, rude, immature.

But lately I have been saying it. A lot.

And I think my life as a graduate student has improved considerably.

That word, of course, is “No.”

In graduate school an important ability to develop is the ability to say No and to know when to say it. In most of my years as a student I avoided saying the N-word at all costs. I said yes to every committee, volunteered for every pot luck or party, agreed to present my final project on the first day of class presentations so that my classmates would have extra time to complete their own projects, and on and on and on.

But recently I have been trying out this skill, this saying No. I have declined a request to help with research tasks. I have avoided going to an “informational” meeting for a department organization, knowing that at some point those attending would be asked to take on projects. I have even recently rescinded a Yes I had previously given, postponing a meeting to make room for other tasks–something I had honestly never done before except in the case of major emergencies.

Something amazing is happening now that I am avoiding situations in which I feel I will feel obligated to say yes, and now that I am exercising my option to say no: I can give more time and energy to do a better job with the things I do say Yes to. Even more amazing, I am making space for the possibility of saying Yes to future unforeseen wonderful things: Opportunity needs a door to knock, and needs you to answer, but there needs to be space in the house for you to invite it inside.

I am not yet entirely comfortable with the N-word. As valuable as the ability to say it, is the ability to say it without the comma—As in “No, I’m really super busy,” or “No, I am so far behind on my writing,” or “No, I would except I have major dental surgery.” Valuable in this regard is the self-help mantra: No is a complete sentence.”

I Googled this phrase and got over 500 hits. The transformative and empowering nature of using the No-word-as-complete-sentence is being applied in such varied contexts drug rehabilitation, self-defense, sexual abstinence programs for teens, and parenting young children.

A quote from a site for women recovering from substance abuse has the following meditation:

…we have the right to say ‘No’ and we have the right to not make excuses for it. NO is a complete sentence. It needs no explanation or excuses.

THIS WEEK: I will weigh my needs against the needs of the people in my life. I will say ‘NO’ when necessary and will not make excuses out of guilt.

One public speaker talks about the “power” of No:

The act of saying no is an act of self-protection and boundary setting. Saying no is a form of recognizing what matters in our lives and what needs to not be pursued at all or to be pursued at a later time. Saying no around others becomes a model for setting boundaries and for realistically assessing what can and should be done at any given moment on any given day…’No.’ It is a complete sentence. You can add words to make the sentence feel more comfortable – ‘No thank you.’ You can add words to make the meaning non-negotiable ‘No, not now and not ever.’ However you say no, the key is to mean it when you say it and to follow through on your word.

Closer to the subject at hand, one of the tips from a college web site involves the applicability of “no” in academic time management:

Another time demand is the need to structure your study time. You need to identify a time and a place for a study. other people assume that you can study any time, so they believe you are always available to watch TV, iron uniforms, go for ice cream, or talk about their problems. You have to train yourself to say No. No is a complete sentence, but it tends to get stuck in our throats.

Meanwhile one college’s master’s thesis handbook says:

While family and other people in your environment may be thrilled that you ‘only’ have the thesis left to complete, they often become obstacles to its completion. They may join in your anxiety and contribute to the possible guilt you may already have about all the time taken away from them while you work on the thesis. As a result, they may get you off your thesis track, either with your full cooperation or with you resenting their interruptions. When you sit down with the thesis, family and others may at precisely those times need a snack, help with school work, a sympathetic ear, or advice – the list is endless. ‘No’ is a complete sentence. ‘Not now, but at such and such time,’ also works well.”


  1. As you say, ‘No’ is a complete sentence. Earlier, I used to give reasons for my No whenever I said, and it always sounded that I was making them up even when they were honest. Then I realized that the the best thing is to simply say a No.

    As always, a well written post.

    Comment by saika — August 12, 2009 @ 2:12 pm

  2. Saika, I am with you 100% about the “post-no reasons” sounding dishonest even when they were not. That used to happen to me all the time. It was the guilt that made them sound that way. Learning to say the n-word is a huge challenge and continuing struggle for me, but I think I am getting better. All the best to you as you continue on your own n-word journey! LOL

    Comment by pprscribe — August 13, 2009 @ 6:58 am

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