The Atlantic

The Fight Against Words That Sound Like, but Are Not, Slurs

Colleges are torn apart when faculty are punished and publicly vilified for accidentally giving offense.
Source: Getty / The Atlantic

When the news began circulating on social media, many couldn’t believe it was true––that the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California would remove a longtime professor from a class because a Mandarin word he used correctly in a lesson sounded sort of like a racial slur. One skeptic warned that the “ridiculous sounding story” seemed like a “fabricated Reddit meme.” Another was suspicious that it so neatly fit a narrative of “wacky campus leftists repressing free speech.”

Then angry faculty and alumni began confirming the story: During a Zoom class on August 20, Greg Patton, a 53-year-old professor, told students that in business settings they should avoid filler words such as um or er. Then he gave another example of a filler word that—I learned—he added to his lecture perhaps five years ago to be more inclusive of international students. “Like in China, the common word is thatthat, that, that, that,” he explained. “So in China it might be nèi genèi ge, nèi ge, nèi ge. So there’s different words that you’ll hear in different countries.”

To some students, the Mandarin word, rendered 那个, sounded too much like the N-word for their liking. They sent a letter of complaint to administrators and pressed their grievance in a meeting. Soon after, Patton was removed from the class, investigated, and excoriated in a mass email. “Professor Greg Patton repeated several times a Chinese word that sounds very similar to a vile racial slur,” Geoffrey Garrett, the Marshall School’s dean, wrote. “Understandably, this caused great pain and upset among students, and for that I am deeply sorry. It is simply unacceptable for faculty to use words in class that can marginalize, hurt and harm the psychological safety of our students.”

[Conor Friedersdorf: Anti-racist arguments are tearing people apart]

The dean’s actions triggered an avalanche of criticism. A Change.org to reinstate Patton accumulated more than 20,000 signatures. CNN reactions of disbelief and ridicule in the Chinese-language media, diminishing USC’s image as a Pacific Rim university that values academic freedom. Ninety-four recent that “a few of us, but many of our parents, lived through mainland China’s Cultural Revolution. This current incident, and Marshall’s response so far, seem disturbingly similar to prevalent behavior in China at that time—spurious accusations against innocent people, which escalated into institutional insanity.”

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