Princeton Professor Lawrence Rosen is facing protests after various students accused him racist language in a recent class. What is different about this controversy is that the class was on racist language and oppressive symbolism. In an effort to discuss the limits of free speech, Rosen used the n-word and asked if it is protected speech. Some students answered that question by walking out and protesting to the university. It is concerning that even a discussion of this word in a relevant class is now viewed as worthy of discipline by some faculty and students. This controversy is occurring after more schools have banned Huckleberry Finn due to the use of the n-word.
According to The Daily Princetonian, Rosen used the word in his anthropology 212 course, “Cultural Freedoms: Hate Speech, Blasphemy and Pornography.” He is quoted as saying “What is worse, a white man punching a black man, or white man calling a black man a ni**er?”
The class is on oppressive symbolism. It is not like this is a class of pottery or modern dance. Philosophy and legal classes routinely deal with troubling language and cases, including racist, anti-Semitic and other prejudicial terminology. Is it necessary to say “the n-word” when everyone understand you are using . . . well . . . the n-word? An important distinction in this case is that the language is being used in a relevant class to adults, not high school or elementary students. There are dozens of racists and offensive terms that arise in such classes. Do academics have to use substitutes for everyone of the terms or can graduate students address the offensive terms in the academic setting?
So does this blog. Usually, I use “the n-word” to avoid what is clearly a hurtful word for many. However, in this context, I used the word because it was relevant to the story as it was to Rosen’s class. What concerns me is that we are removing language that is important to discuss our history and our language, including the ill-advised banning of books like Huckleberry Finn and To Kill A Mockingbird which convey important social and historical values. We have discussed this troubling trend in literature and academia.
My concern is that we are limited academic discourse and creating barriers to good-faith discussions of language and meaning.
Do you think the use of this word in any context is racially insensitive?