Paul L. Caron

Monday, September 21, 2020

Did USC Professor Get What He Deserved For Using Mandarin Word 'Nèige' In Class?

Following up on my previous post, USC Professor Removed From Class After Using Mandarin Word That Sounds Like English N***** Racial Slur:  Chronicle of Higher Education, How One Word Led to an Uproar:

USC Marshall (2020)Greg Patton was accused of using a racial slur in class. Did the business professor get what he deserved — or is he a convenient scapegoat?

Greg Patton said the word near the end of class. He was explaining how, when you make a presentation, it’s helpful to pause sometimes to let your audience absorb the information. Nervous speakers tend to fill the gaps with ums and ers when silence is preferable. It’s the kind of nuts-and-bolts advice that Patton, a professor of clinical business communication, has dispensed to M.B.A. students at the University of Southern California for a couple of decades now. He thought nothing of it at the time.

Many of his students aren’t from the United States. A typical M.B.A. class at Southern Cal’s Marshall School of Business is about one-third international, though that proportion is lower this year — around 12 percent — because of the pandemic. Patton tells students who aren’t native English speakers that he’s not a stickler on word choice or pronunciation; he cares more about their ideas. He also tries to mix in culturally diverse examples. When he talks about the importance of pausing, for instance, he notes that other languages have equivalent filler words. Because he taught in the university’s Shanghai program for years, his go-to example is taken from Mandarin: nèige (那个). It literally means “that,” but it’s also widely used in the same way as um.

And it sounds a bit like the n-word. The resemblance isn’t exact: The first vowel is a long “a” rather than a short “i,” and there’s no “r” sound at the end. It’s more like “nay-ga.” But it’s similar enough that, when it’s said rapidly and repeatedly, and heard out of context, an English speaker could mistake it for the racist slur. That is how several of Patton’s students apparently heard it in a class on August 20, and they complained to the administration. The complaint led to Patton’s removal from the course.

When a video of Patton saying the word was posted online, the general reaction wasn’t outrage at Patton but bafflement at how what he said could have prompted his ouster. As the story made its way into the Chinese news media, and onto the social network Weibo, it was met with disbelief and anger. A letter signed by more than 100 mostly Chinese alumni of the business school avers that the “spurious charge has the additional feature of casting insult toward the Chinese language.” Later, on the Instagram account black_at_usc — which is devoted to documenting instances of racial bias at the university — a post accused the administration of using Patton “as a scapegoat so that they don’t have to address the true issues we’ve been facing.” That post has more than 2,000 likes.

The university’s response became fodder for Fox News, the Chinese Communist Party newspaper Global Times, and The Daily Show With Trevor Noah, not to mention a timeline full of Twitter pundits who already take a dim view of aggrieved college students. And the whole incident has become a strange sideshow at a moment of national reckoning on race, while also offering a case study in how the handling of a student complaint can lead to consequences far beyond the classroom. Whether Patton deserved to be removed, or was the target of overzealous students aided by an oversensitive administration, speaks to questions roiling other campuses. Was this a serious misstep, an intentional provocation, or a minor misunderstanding reframed as racist? When is an apology not enough?

At the center of the saga is a veteran professor who never imagined that an example he’d used for years without incident would get him booted from a course he helped build, and perhaps prevent him from teaching again in the business’s school’s flagship M.B.A. program. ...

While Patton says he does genuinely feel bad that the example has caused such disruption, he has heard from Chinese students who don’t think he should have expressed remorse. “If there’s a complaint I’m getting, it’s that I apologized and should not have,” he says. He still struggles to understand how what he said could have been interpreted as laced with ill intent, as if he were sneaking in a slur. “I’m not springing it on them,” he says. “I’m talking in an international context. I’m specifically talking about China and the language most commonly spoken in the world.”

Patton doesn’t believe he’ll be able to teach in the full-time M.B.A. program again anytime soon. There’s concern at the business school that the students who complained might object to his teaching the communication course next fall, or any other course, for that matter. An online petition to reinstate Patton has received more than 19,000 signatures.

While he wasn’t actually placed on leave or reprimanded, Patton does feel that his reputation has yet to be restored, and that his ability to teach remains in question. “I’ve used that example for years, and no one said anything to me. I’ve been going to China for 20 years, where I heard it all the time. I never once thought the two words were connected,” he says. “It’s painful because I’ve put in a lot of heart and soul into building up that program.”

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Even as someone who thinks it is reasonable to expect that teachers use language in a way that meets students’ needs, I find this one a bit perplexing. No student who was listening to the lecture with any degree of attention could possibly have misunderstood what Prof. Patton was saying. So the question, I guess, is whether he was obliged to think about the examples he was using from the standpoint of a student who was paying no attention whatsoever, and then heard the word “neige” repeated three times. From that standpoint—which is, unfortunately, how many students consume remote learning—the word could of course be jarring.

Posted by: Matt | Sep 24, 2020 8:12:51 AM

My mother-in-law says this every time she speaks with my wife. It is a normal part of the language. When I first heard this story, it really did not surprise me. The hypersensitivity and shoot first mentality at the universities among students and faculty (including admin) is a joke.

Posted by: ERIC DIBELLA | Sep 22, 2020 8:26:06 AM

When woke anti-racists advocate banning all words in all languages that could be construed as racially-insentitive, I'll take them seriously.

As it stands, I've yet to see Arabic language departments ban this word, quite common in the Middle East, which is explicitly racist in its etymology:

Posted by: MM Classic | Sep 21, 2020 6:32:53 PM

The reaction to USC Marshall’s actions against Professor Patton have been uniformly negative. In particular, Asian alumni have been strongly critical. They feel that Dean Garrett’s actions are insulting to Chinese culture and demonstrate Euro-centrism. The Volokh Conspiracy has published in full a letter from over 100 Chinese alumni.


“A few of us, but many of our parents, lived through mainland China's Cultural Revolution (1966–1976). 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. In the United States on 9 June 1954, the counsel for the U.S. Army, Joseph Welch, said to Senator Joseph McCarthy, 'have you no sense of decency?' Welch's question eloquently pointed attention toward McCarthy's misrepresentations and helped bring an end to the madness. It took courage to end the harm in both cases and we seek that from USC and Marshall.”

“We also find the motivation behind these charges highly questionable. After many years of the example's use, and positive feedback, this year the example suddenly caused deep mental health consequences and mental exhaustion? It seems entirely appropriate that the person or persons who brought forth such abusive and dishonest charges should be reprimanded strongly by Marshall not only for the obvious Student Conduct and Integrity violation, but for demeaning the important cause they pretend to stand for.”

“We are also deeply disappointed that the spurious charge has the additional feature of casting insult toward the Chinese language, the most spoken in the world, and characterized it and its usage as vile. We feel Marshall should be open to diversity in all areas—not only those areas convenient for the moment. We further suggest that any attempt to degrade this matter and suggest that a Chinese word different in sound, tone, accent, context and language itself is "exactly like" an offensive US term would be naive, a disgusting and intentional stretch and would further degrade important societal discussion.”

USC Marshall depends heavily on Chinese and Chinese-American students in its recruiting. Has USC Marshall made a terrible mistake that will significantly affect its ability to recruit these students? Based on the reaction online in the Asian community, the answer is a clear yes.

Posted by: Scott Fruehwald | Sep 21, 2020 10:57:35 AM

Professor Patton's treatment demonstrates the lack of backbone and common sense of the administrators. Fact is he did not use a racial slur. Period. This is also not a matter of perception. He explained that he was using an example for filler words from Chinese/Mandarin, so for any listener to mistake that word for the n-word, is simply absurd.

Posted by: Robert van Brederode | Sep 21, 2020 6:51:58 AM

This is the silliest story I’ve ever heard

Posted by: Mike Livingston | Sep 21, 2020 2:24:27 AM