The N-Word in the Classroom

Two professors on different campuses used the N-word last week. One was suspended and one was backed by his institution, demonstrating academe's continually fraught relationship with the term.

February 12, 2018
 
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It’s one of the most loaded words in the U.S. To many professors, especially white ones, that makes the N-word completely off-limits in the classroom. To some, it makes the N-word fertile pedagogical ground.

Two professors in the latter camp, both white, used the N-word last week for two very different purposes, and with two very different outcomes.

“The values of free speech and inclusivity are central to Princeton University’s mission and critical to the education we provide to our students, including in Anthropology 212, Cultural Freedoms: Hate Speech, Blasphemy, and Pornography,” Michael Hotchkiss, a Princeton spokesman, said via email when asked about Lawrence Rosen, the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Anthropology on campus.

Rosen, who did not respond to a request for comment, used the N-word in an introduction to his class to make students think about cultural and linguistic taboos, according to student and faculty accounts. He asked, for example, what students thought about a student wiping her feet on the American flag, or what they thought was worse -- a white man punching a black man or calling him the N-word? (Rosen used the term in full, repeating it multiple times during the class, students said.)

In response to the latter example, one student reportedly asked Rosen if he intended to keep using the N-word. Rosen said yes, if it was necessary. Several students walked out or officially complained about Rosen.

In response, the university has backed Rosen, saying that the “conversations and disagreements that took place in the seminar” are “part of the vigorous engagement and robust debate that are central to what we do.”

At the same time, said Hotchkiss, "we will continue to look for ways to encourage discussions about free speech and inclusivity” with the students in the class and on campus, including setting up a meeting with them.

Meanwhile, at Southern Connecticut State University, Eric Triffin, an adjunct professor of public health, was suspended after using the N-word while singing along to a song a student played in class. Tiffin, a longtime instructor, is known on campus for opening classes by asking a student to play a song and dancing to it. But one particular song used the N-word, and now some students are asking the university to punish Triffin for not knowing that singing that word in class would offend.

The president of the Black Student Union, for example, posted a video on Facebook in which he said that "students of color should not be subjected to faculty and staff using racial slurs during the process of their education."

Joe Bertolino, university president, has announced plans for an open forum on the matter and told students and faculty members via email that Southern Connecticut State is "investigating the matter fully and will take appropriate action as a result of the findings."

As “a public institution dedicated to the values of social justice, our university abhors the use of racist or hateful words and actions and we will confront these incidents if and when they occur,” Bertolino wrote. “I ask you again to join me in promoting a campus environment based on acceptance and understanding -- one in which every member of our community feels valued and is treated with dignity and respect.”

In a Facebook message, Triffin confirmed that he has been suspended, saying "I was singing along with the chorus line ('I am a happy nig-gah'), of a song a student had put on."

Triffin wrote that he’d been advised by his union not to comment further but said that he wished to be seen as “neither white nor black, just human.”

Triffin’s wish will probably fall on some sympathetic ears in academe, but it also clashes with some of the tenets creating an inclusive classroom. Those include understanding how one is positioned within the hierarchies of race, ethnicity, gender, class and more. Some scholars of race, for example, have pointed out that shrugging off one’s white privilege is a symptom of that privilege.

Triffin, as an adjunct, arguably has less academic freedom than a tenured professor such as Rosen. That possibly explains why he is suspended and his counterpart is not. And, of course, Rosen, not Triffin, used the word in the context of instruction. But the different situations and outcomes are the latest examples of academe’s continually fraught relationship with the N-word.

Both situations also demonstrate students' heightened sense of agency in demanding learning spaces they see as inclusive.

Geoffrey R. Stone, the Edward H. Levi Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago, was called out at Brown University last year for using the N-word during a lecture that was part of that campus’s “Reaffirming University Values: Campus Dialogue and Discourse” program.

Stone, a First Amendment scholar and former provost at Chicago who chaired its Committee on Freedom of Expression, delivered a speech at Brown called “Free Speech on Campus: A Challenge of Our Times.” During a question-and-answer period, Stone used the N-word in full to describe the one and only time he’d ever encountered slurs in the classroom. A black undergraduate student in the audience at Brown asked him to refrain from using actual slurs, saying that it had a “chilling effect” on speech for those present.

In response, Stone said, “I teach, among other things, the First Amendment. There are cases that involve these words. You can’t talk about the words in the class when you’re discussing whether the word should be legal or not? Doesn’t make any sense. Or you read it in a novel that uses the words and you can’t use the words? Sorry. But I do hear you.”

Stone said Friday that it remained his view that it is “perfectly appropriate to use such language in the classroom if the word is relevant to the material or issues being discussed.” A literature professor teaching Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, a history professor teaching about racism or a law professor teaching a case involving the use of such language can “and in my view should use the word if using it is relevant to what is being taught,” he added.

At the same time, Stone said, teachers and students in the classroom should be “professional” and not “gratuitously use” such language if it’s not relevant to the material or issues at hand.

Carolyn Rouse, chair of Princeton’s anthropology department, expressed similar views in a letter to the editor of the campus’s student newspaper defending Rosen.

“Rosen started the class by breaking a number of taboos in order to get the students to recognize their emotional response to cultural symbols,” Rouse wrote. “By the end of the semester, Rosen hopes that his students will be able to argue why hate speech should or should not be protected using an argument other than ‘because it made me feel bad.’”

Asking why Rosen’s example of a student wiping her feet on the flag didn’t elicit the same student anger, Rouse said that “In a different setting -- a different university, for example -- the student response might have been the reverse. A student wiping his or her feet on the American flag might have caused a riot. So, whose feelings should the law protect? And why? This is a critical question now before the courts” in other kinds of cases.

Rouse also said that academic institutions have, of late, “been caricatured as liberal bastions for snowflakes.” While that has never been the reality, she said, “Our goal is to get students to move beyond their common sense to see how culture has shaped their beliefs and emotions. If our students leave our classes knowing exactly what they knew when they entered, then we didn’t do our jobs.”

Rouse further said that Rosen has used the same examples year after year but this was the first time students responded in such a manner. Rouse, for her part, said it was “diagnostic of the level of overt anti-black racism in the country today. Anti-American and anti-Semitic examples did not upset the students, but an example of racism did. This did not happen when Obama was president, when the example seemed less real and seemed to have less power.”

Rouse, who is black, added, “I feel bad for the students who left the class not trusting the process. Rosen was fighting battles for women, Native Americans, and African-Americans before these students were born. He grew up a Jew in anti-Semitic America, and recognizes how law has afforded him rights he would not otherwise have.”

Christina Berchini, a professor of English education at the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire who studies whiteness, had a much different take, saying there is no circumstance under which using the N-word is acceptable.

Of Rosen in particular, she said, “I would expect more from someone who studies anthropology, given how deeply such studies rely on context to understand the development of cultures and societies. The context within which this word was created to enslave, oppress and disenfranchise people of color should suggest that one must think carefully about how they are encouraging students to think about language invented strictly for the purposes of subjugation.”

Quoting the author Ta-Nehisi Coates, Berchini said that "when you're white in this country, you're taught that everything belongs to you." That includes language, she added.

Referring to the Southern Connecticut State case, Berchini said that some white people “simply believe that they should have untethered access to language -- all language, no holds barred -- which is why we often get scenarios and situations where some oppressed-feeling white person will ask, ‘But, but, but, it's OK for people of color to say the N-word, in a song, for example, but not me? Isn't that racist against white people?’”

Even a little bit of awareness of or attention to the context of the N-word and how it has been used across time suggests that refraining from its use “is to abide by a very basic law of humanity,” she said.

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