A business professor from the University of Southern California (USC) was replaced from his class after uttering a Chinese word that sounded like a racial slur.
Professor Greg Patton of the Marshall School of Business Administration was teaching his Communications for Management class via Zoom. In his class of August 20, he described how the Chinese used filler words and gave some examples. One of these words was “ne ga” (spelled as nà ge or nèige), which sounded like the English N-word.
This drew a strong reaction from a group of African-American master’s students. They expressed their dismay in a letter addressed to Marshall Dean Geoffrey Garrett, noting the professor’s “negligence and disregard” in the class.
The students stated that their mental health was affected, and they questioned whether Patton should still continue teaching the class. “To expect that we will sit through two more weeks of this class, knowing that the professor lacks the tact, racial awareness and empathy to lead and teach an audience as diverse as ours is unacceptable,” they wrote.
The group also suspected that Patton might have mispronounced the word on purpose after they consulted with Chinese students regarding the word’s actual pronunciation, which was “most commonly used with a pause in between both syllables.”
The Chinese word has previously been associated with the racial slur and was the subject of Youtube videos which showed different ways to pronounce it. This cast more doubt on Patton’s intent, as the Black students further stated in their letter:
“There are over 10,000 characters in the Chinese written language and to use this phrase … is hurtful and unacceptable to our USC Marshall community.”
I cannot believe this is real, but it is.
This USC Professor is on leave after students were offended that a Chinese word he used during a lecture on foreign languages sounded like an english racial slur.
Watch the video for yourself: pic.twitter.com/HkFPMEP5I2
— Cabot Phillips (@cabot_phillips) September 3, 2020
Dean Garrett shared the students’ sentiments, and promptly apologized in an email he sent to all MBA students on August 26.
“Understandably, this caused great pain and upset among students, and for that I am deeply sorry,” Garrett stated. “It is simply unacceptable for faculty to use such examples or language in class because they can marginalize and harm you and hurt your feelings of psychological safety.”
Garett also announced that Patton will take a “short-term pause” from teaching the communications course but will continue to teach his other classes.
Replacement Sparks Controversy
Patton also issued his own apology in a letter addressed to the Marshall Graduate School Association, even as he denied the allegation. “I did not connect this in the moment to any English words and certainly not any racial slur.”
The USC’s decision against Patton was not universally lauded. The story has been picked up by media, and commentators like David French noted that the action may be counter-productive.
The Time columnist posted in his Twitter account that if “anyone thinks they’re helping the cause of racial equality by engaging in absurd, over-the-top speech policing of innocent people, then they’re sadly mistaken.”