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.”