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Dispatches on academic freedom

Academic freedom and the N-word

Just because professors may say the N-word doesn’t mean they should.


May a professor say the N-word in class? This question is at the heart of recent controversies at Western University, St. Jerome’s University (a Catholic university federated with University of Waterloo), and King’s University College at Western University.

In all three cases, white professors uttered the word while teaching about issues of race and racism to classes with a small minority of Black students. Black students complained that hearing their professors say the word in class made them uncomfortable. In the Western and King’s cases, the affected students stopped attending the classes.

While the three cases are similar, I am going to focus on the St. Jerome’s/U of Waterloo case because there the matter of academic freedom rose to particular prominence.

At U of Waterloo, the months-old St. Jerome’s N-word incident drew renewed attention in June because of the university’s responses to anti-Black racism in the U.S. (including that of U of Waterloo alumna Amy Cooper). The university issued a since-deleted statement that read in part, “The University of Waterloo unequivocally believes that there is no place for the use of the n-word in class, on campus or in our community.”

A number of Black professors at U of Waterloo strongly criticized the university’s statement for the chilling effect it would have on Black scholars who utter the N-word as part of anti-racism scholarship and pedagogy. In emails, on social media and in a vigourous Senate discussion, the U of Waterloo community heard that academia is already an inhospitable place for Black scholars, and institutional prohibitions that make it harder to talk about, teach and study anti-Black racism don’t help.

Vershawn Ashanti Young, a U of Waterloo drama and speech communication professor wrote in The Conversation that since his “research squarely theorizes the N-word,” the university’s statement made him feel like he had to stop doing his job in order to keep his job. In the predominantly white space of academia, Professor Young wrote, the university’s prohibition on using the N-word disproportionately affects Black scholars. “Am I even welcome?” he wondered.

In light of the pushback, U of Waterloo deleted its initial statement and issued a new one that sought to strike a balance between opposing racism and affirming the academic freedom of scholars, and in particular Black and other scholars who study and teach about anti-Black racism.

Striking this balance is more easily said than done. The same academic freedom protections that permit Black scholars like Professor Young to research and teach about “the six or seven insightful ways the word functions in Black culture” protected Philippe Rushton’s ability to engage in racist pseudoscience while a professor at Western from 1977 to 2012, to the detriment of Black students.

Moreover, while there is broad (but not universal) consensus that white people should not utter the N-word, academic freedom as it is enshrined in collective agreements and other governance documents does not – and indeed cannot – make academic freedom protections conditional on scholars’ race or social location. While there may be different standards about who can say the N-word (as Arizona State University English professor and N-word expert Neal A. Lester wryly observes, “There’s a double standard about a lot of stuff.”), the academic freedom rules are the same for everyone. To put it bluntly, if you can’t fire a Black professor for saying the N-word, then you can’t fire a white one for saying it.

Just as academic freedom protection is not conditional on a professor’s race, neither is it – in general – conditional upon a professor’s scholarly approach or pedagogical methods. Compare Professor Young’s pedagogy with the very different approach of the late Professor Michael Persinger of Laurentian University. Professor Young studies and has published about the varied uses of the N-word, but even as an expert on the word – or perhaps because he is an expert on the word – he chooses not to utter it in class. He writes, “knowing there are multiple sensitivities, misunderstandings, and intentional illiteracy about the word, I stick to my notes and refer to the word as the N-word” in class.

By contrast, Professor Persinger made students sign a statement of understanding acknowledging that the professor would use a wide range of offensive terms in class to help the students learn not to respond to these words emotionally; the same document affirmed that students could say whatever they wished in class, regardless of whether it was “politically correct” or not. Laurentian suspended Professor Persinger from teaching because of this practice, but late last year an arbitrator ruled that the university inappropriately violated his academic freedom. As unconventional (and arguably irresponsible) as Professor Persinger’s approach was, his academic freedom as enshrined in his collective agreement permitted him to maintain the approach.

The case of Professor Persinger brings home just how difficult it is to balance academic freedom with anti-racism. While he did not include the N-word on his list of offensive terms students should be prepared to hear in class, the list included other hateful slurs. Of course, academic freedom does not give professors the right to direct slurs against students, and there is no evidence that Professor Persinger did so. Still, there is good reason to worry about the harms minoritized students experience when they are exposed to slurs in class, even if those slurs aren’t directed against them.

Tamia Chicas, the only Black student in the King’s class in which the N-word was used, describes feeling sad and embarrassed when, upon hearing their professor use the word, the other students in the class went silent and turned to look at her. Hearing slurs is painful for those who have been subject to them their whole lives; hearing those slurs in class can make those students feel singled out. Some of them will wonder, as Professor Young did, whether they are even welcome.

That feeling of being unwelcome can be reinforced by the feeling that professors are not accountable. As the U of Waterloo community reckoned with the fallout from the St. Jerome’s case, many Black students and their allies expressed frustration that academic freedom seems to give already powerful professors a free pass to do whatever they like. In a case revolving around racist slurs, it doesn’t help that there are very few Black professors at U of Waterloo – and in particular very few tenure-stream Black professors. To a frustrated student dealing with systemic racism, academic freedom can look a lot like an exclusive white club. Quite understandably, this can lead to calls to rescind academic freedom altogether.

I started this column by asking whether professors may say the N-word in class. The answer is yes. Scholars need to be able to say the word in the course of studying it as Professors Young and Lester do. Strong, broad academic freedom provisions provide crucial protection for minoritized scholars, anti-oppressive scholars, and scholars in emerging fields and subfields.

However, just because professors may say the N-word doesn’t mean they should. For some professors in some contexts, saying the N-word is the right methodological and pedagogical choice. Collective agreements are too blunt instruments to elaborate which considerations make the choice right, and must therefore cast a wide net. But professors contemplating uttering the N-word or any other hateful slur have a moral responsibility to understand the power and the potential harms of those words, and to seek to weight their scholarly objectives against the goal of cultivating supportive, welcoming learning environments for students of all races and genders. Professors can’t be fired for erring on the side of academic freedom rather than inclusion, but that shouldn’t prevent us thinking that they’ve made the wrong call.

Further, professors and administrators from majority groups need to work to extend academic freedom protections to more minoritized scholars who are still to a great degree under-represented in academia. The voices of Black professors at Waterloo were crucial in the response to the St. Jerome’s case, but too few of them had to bear too much of the burden. It is time – long past time – to stop redlining the professoriate.

Shannon Dea
Shannon Dea is the dean of arts and a professor of philosophy at the University of Regina.
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  1. Stuart Chambers / August 22, 2020 at 15:48

    Yes, when making an academic argument or referring to a historic time period, yes, it should be part of classroom discourse. Using it as a slur is a moot point. No one is going to condone racism by a professor.

  2. Dominick Grace / August 29, 2020 at 11:39

    I had been teaching The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn a about the same time the incident at Western occurred (I teach ad Brescia, an affiliate). I warned students about the language in the book and that, only in the context of quoting directly from the book, I might use the n-word. The class had a diverse racial mix. Nobody expressed discomfort to me, nor, to the best of my knowledge, lodged a complaint, but when I heard what had happened at Western, I did get rather concerned about the potential chilling effects to teaching.

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