Friday, January 7, 2011

Are there some words your white professor just cannot say?

We seem to have a thing about words going here.  Let's roll with it.  In a comment on the previous post, Sam writes that he " feels that people are too sensitive over the "N" word. While Sam refrains from using it, he does not get bent out of shape when it is used by various hip hop artists. Regarding Huck Finn, leave Jim alone!"

Are people too sensitive about the N-word?  That people are sensitive about it are clear.  Sam notes Ebert's run-in with the word, and last August, Dr. Laura made a pretty big deal on one show about how it shouldn't bother anyone if she says the N-word because it is said on some HBO show quite frequently.  She then said the N-word over and over.  She ended her show shortly after.

The moral from the public is pretty clear: white people shouldn't say the N-word.  Period.

Now let me float this by you.  What if you are sitting in your class and your "white" professor says the N-word multiple times.  Let's assume your prof is saying the word to talk about Huck Finn, the rhetoric of a particular HBO show or hip hop artist, the way people have used the word for hate in the past and present, or the way some people use it today to counteract its traditional use.  Would you feel comfortable that your prof is saying that word?  Is it no big deal, some kind of deal, or a big deal?

But even more general, are there just some things your professors cannot say in class without sending up major red flags?  Or better yet, what have your profs said where you thought, "Damn, that's just wrong!"? (and maybe you even did something about it...)


  1. the idea is that words tend to make up a big chunk of the information people transfer to one-another when communicating. As I explained in the article I submitted, they can become so dominating that even the user can be caught up in emotional connotations and whatnot. For example, I can say that bowling is not a "sport" without having any precise definition of the word-- secretly, my only argument would be that bowling does not meet some threshold of vague emotional meaning to me that defines what I can comfortably refer to as a "sport" (and, again as I explained in my contributor post, this argument will often be wrongly interpreted, either because of its shittiness or because the opposition will likely be just as emotionally undisciplined, and therefore apt to redefine the word "sport" not logically, but as some threshold of vague emotional meaning to _them_ that defines what _they_ can comfortably refer to as a "sport").

    So it's my job to rid myself of those biases when I discuss sensitive issues like the word "nigger" in an academic sense. It's the audience's job to sniff them out, because we can probably say that identifying insensitive/racist people is a good thing for the improvement of race relations. The problem is that audiences can vary in their level of sensitivity, and may therefore detect insensitivity where there actually isn't any. So it then becomes my job to make sure that I tailor my message to the audience; this could mean refusing to use the word altogether, or it could mean changing absolutely nothing if I happen to believe that using the word "nigger" will actually _help_ people "get over it" in the long run.

    Are we, as a culture, too sensitive to these sorts of things? I don't really know, which is why I wrote a couple of boring, overly-analytical paragraphs that possibly do little more than bring a somewhat different perspective to the issue, instead of actually giving my opinion on the issue itself. It's all quite complicated, especially considering questions of "maybe we should just say whatever we want and hope that everyone just gets over it" and other worldviews that may or may not have legitimate concrete support. I can say, though, that if more people stopped worrying so much about others' biases and started working on solving their own, they would become better equipped to understand the complex problems they're so eager to indiscriminately opine on today. I feel like the people who cast judgement on those they deem "insensitive" almost never truly grasp the incredible nuance behind something as "simple" as the Kramer "fork up your ass" rant. And I doubt I do, either!

  2. Sam likes the two comments.

    Girl, a prof does not have the right to say "anything" in class. For example profs have been dismissed for just cursing in class. Next, Sam cannot think of a context where it would be appropriate to use the "N" word in class, even if it would help people get over it. Besides, Sam does not believe any prof would be stupid enough to say the "N" word in class. Two final points, first, there is not much "nuance" in the "fork up your ass" rant by Kramer. He meant a fork up the ass! Sometimes a rose is just a rose, nothing more! Sam also agrees with 7:49, that in general, white people should not say or use the "N' word, but there may be exceptions. A few years ago, Eminem used the "N" word in one of his songs and he was criticized, but he weathered the storm and people got over it. Perhaps Justin Bieber will do a follow up. After all, his hommies are Usher and T-Pain.


  3. Profs have been dismissed for cursing in class. Whatever.

  4. Nice piece in the Chronicle on the N-word (1,6, 2011)

    Erasing the N-Word in Huck Finn Erases History
    By Marybeth Gasman

    In the past few days, the news and internet have been buzzing with talk of a new version of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Auburn University professor Alan Gribben’s new edition of the book replaces the N-word, which is used 219 times, with the word “slave.” According to Gribben, many readers cannot get past Twain’s use of the N-word to understand the commentary he is making about American racism. Gribben may have a point. However, Huck Finn was published in 1884, and with it Twain was pointing out the complexities of racism and prejudice in 1840s Missouri by depicting life as it was. As Twain wrote, Jim Crow laws were being passed throughout the South, denying civil rights to African-Americans at a rapid pace. Are we to erase this depiction and forget about it?

    Although I abhor the N-word, sanitizing history does not sit right with me. It is important that young people (and old for the matter) understand the history of racism. Reading novels, written during a period of immense oppression and segregation, gives people insight into the mistakes that our country has made and also points to some progress. We need to understand why the word was used, who used it, and the ways it oppressed and continues to oppress.

    There is a dangerous trend happening in the United States right now. People are rewriting textbooks in several states to soften the atrocities of slavery. The governor of Virginia, Bob McDonnell, omitted any mention of slavery when celebrating the state’s Confederate History Month. And why, by the way, are we celebrating the Confederacy? Others, including Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, are pretending that the civil-rights era and the years prior to it were “not so bad” even though they remember distinctly and some participated in acts of racism. Still others are reminiscing about the “good old days”—the 1950s—when “life was simple.”

    Having conducted hundreds of oral-history interviews, I know one thing for sure: People tend to offer a version of history that presents them in a favorable light. I’ve interviewed former segregationists who told me: “That’s the way it was. We didn’t know any different. We didn’t know it was wrong. We thought separate was really equal.” Comforting words, perhaps, but far from the truth.

    Nothing is less comforting for Americans than the N-word. Taking it out of a book may make for easier reading, but to do so leads us down a slippery slope toward collective amnesia. The N-word has a vicious history in the United States, and one that must be remembered so that we don’t repeat it.

    Many of you share her position!

    Leave Jim alone.


  5. To 6:23, you sound like you do not believe Sam. Here is just "one" case for you to ponder. There are more!

    A University of Hawaii professor has lost his job for cursing in class.

    Daniel Petersen, 61, has been suspended without pay as part of a settlement with the university over a complaint made by one of the parents regarding his use of profanity in his Philosophy class. Last week, he was advised that his services would no longer be need next semester.

    “The first thing I say is ‘(Expletive) happens,’ in the context of free will and determinism,” he told Hawaii Tribune-Herald.

    Petersen defended his actions as necessary to get the students to pay attention in class.

    “I do what I do to wake students up,” he said. “It makes them stand up and take notice. I know many of them are very religious. It makes them sit up and think a little bit. But I’ve never sworn at a student.”

    Petersen said he is planning to sue the university for “trying to squash me and silence me. I believe in my heart I have done nothing wrong, and that they have violated my civil rights.”

    Profs must be careful what they say in class!


  6. The fact that professors have been dismissed for swearing does not mean that that's a good policy, nor does it mean that saying the word "nigger" is inappropriate for white people to use as a rule.

    By "nuance" in the "fork up your ass" rant, I mean in the implication that Michael Richards is a racist or an insensitive person who needs to be identified as such. One could argue that he isn't a racist at all, and was just a comedian with an unexpectedly biased audience (in fact, this _has_ been argued). Maybe he was, maybe he wasn't-- determining the truth in that regard would require thorough understanding of a lot of nuance with regard to his possible biases and emotions, his personal past, and that of his audience. There are a lot of factors to consider, but instead of considering those factors, people tend to blindly yell and scream about how his actions were clearly insensitive if not outright racist.

  7. Ok, I stand corrected. That is so stupid that a prof can get in big trouble for cursing in class. If that is really teh case then I have a few professors that would really be in trouble. I agree with girl that that doesn't mean it is good policy. I'd fight tooth and nail to keep some of profs that curse. I actually love it!

  8. Girl, you may find it cute for profs to curse in class but others do not like it. Besides, profs should have enough sense to maintain a decent and professional classroom decorum. Two years ago, a Whitewater prof (name withheld) almost got whacked for saying the word "shit" in class. An unhappy student filed a complaint against him and UW System lawyers jumped on his ass with both feet. After lengthy litigation stretching over two years and considerable personal expense, he finally beat the dismissal charges, but he is more careful now! Regarding Richards, Sam does not know him so he is not going to accuse him of being a bigot, nor is Sam going to waste time analyzing his rant. All Sam is saying is that we have to watch what we say in public and to each other. One more thing girl, saying the n-word around black people especially if you are white is tantamount to lighting a stick of dynamite. You may need protection from the bomb squad.


  9. I completely disagree with third-person Sam. Teaching is not always about making people comfortable. Sometimes crass language makes the point that non-crass equivalents cannot. This is college - not high school and not day care.

    There will always be unhappy students about something. That is not an argument that using crass language is immoral or distasteful. Even if such students file complaints, that is no argument as to the value or dis-value of crass language.

    I would venture that those profs who are willing to use crass language where appropriate in class have a much better sense on how to engage their students than profs who resolutely will not use such language on high moral principles.

    fuck fuck

  10. Xavier, Sam wants you to share with him examples of crass language! What do you mean?

  11. Sorry Sam. It doesn't work like that. Examples are not simply like, "And that's a shitty part of history..." where you can just offer some easy non-crass replacement word or phrase. Those instances where using language such as "fuck" and "shit" are appropriate are usually "in the moment" kinds of instruction. They are radically contextual, if you will, where the content, the emotion, and the conviction are such that the language really hits home the point. It punches the point home, where other expressions fall flat.

    I can only assume you were frothing at the mouth to reword some example sentences. If so, you just don't get it.

  12. Well this is college and we're all adults as long as a professor isn't actually cursing AT students, and isn't using it when speaking of non-course-related material, and is just using it to add to the effectiveness of the lecture, to catch students attention, or to drive a point home (meaning students are actually meant to benefit from it), then so what?
    Professors are all different and have different teaching techniques and to dismiss or threaten to dismiss those who choose to use curse words in class is just ludicrous.
    Honestly, I think students who choose to "tattle" on a professor simply for swearing in a non-abusive and non-threatening way in class are childish, selfish, and narrow-minded.
    When students go to administration because they had a problem with something a professor said, it's the administrations duty to investigate and find out what the real problem is before jumping to conclusions.
    And we're talking about words here - just words. Once those words are directed at individuals and used to hurt them emotionally/psychologically, then we have issues, otherwise, any word should be allowed to be spoken in class by any professor.

  13. It would seem to me that if a professor is fired for using words that that professor feels as though they are using to express themselves, and unless it is expressly forbidden in the contract that they agreed to, it would seem as though they would have a pretty good discrimination law suit against the college...