The removal of such terms and images in a class addressing racism can substantially change and undermine a professor’s treatment of the subject. It is analogous to decision of the Yale University Press when it published Jytte Klausen’s “The Cartoons That Shook the World” (on the cartoons that led to riots and over 200 killed in protests worldwide). Yale removed the the 12 cartoons from the book so not to insult Muslims. Thus, you could read the book but not actually see the cartoons themselves. Moreover, the students are suggesting that a black professor could read from the historical documents in the same class but not a non-black professor.
Ironically, the was a class discussion on free speech and racism. Swers was quoting Clarence Brandenburg from Brandenburg v. Ohio (a 1969 case that we can discussed much in terms of “violent speech”), the Court struck down an Ohio law prohibiting public speech that was deemed as promoting illegal conduct. It supported the right of the KKK to speak even though it is a hateful organization.
The letter insists that white professors cannot read such passages. The students insist “This word was not only written on the slide without any censoring but also said aloud with a hard ‘r.'” They also object that Swers referred to Brandenburg as “not a terribly sympathetic figure” rather than being more forceful and demonstrative in condemning the historical figure behind the Supreme Court decision. The students also demand proof of being reeducated on the racism and acceptance that white professors are barred from using the word:
We ask that you take action in the form of:
a clear, sincere, and direct apology to everyone in the class;
a meticulous review of presentation and lecture material for potential bias;
a demonstrated understanding of the history of the N-word and why it is inappropriate for a non-Black person to say it in any context, including an educational context.
The letter was filed Mirka Sosa with the campus Office of Institutional Diversity, Equity and Affirmative Action. Sosa insisted that Swers be held to “full accountability” and emphasized that the problem is that she is white and that white professors “should not say that word at all.”
As will come as little surprise to many on this blog, my natural default remains with the free speech and academic freedom principles protecting Swers in reading from historical documents. Thus, I do not agree that the use of offensive terms like this are barred in “any context” and regardless of the intent behind such references. Finally, the effort to bar professors from reading from such a document based on their own race is deeply disturbing and raises its own concerns over the use of racial classifications.