New School Professor under investigation for saying “n-word” as used by James Baldwin

August 15, 2019 • 12:30 pm

There is no word more offensive in American discourse than the “n-word”, and I hesitate to even write what it stands for, although I used to. It is, of course, horribly racist, though I have no problem writing “kike” or “spick” or any other number of racial slurs. So be it; I won’t use the word here, even though you know what it is and people automatically hear it when they hear the “n-word” phrase. Even Geoff Stone, our First Amendment law- chool professor, and head of the University of Chicago free speech committee (which produced the “Chicago Principles”) no longer uses the word  in class though he once did as an example of offensive hate speech. In that case, though, he wasn’t discussing how an author (or a black person) used the word.

If that’s good enough for Stone, it’s good enough for me. However, I see no similar problems when discussing an author’s use of the word, as in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn or, in the case at hand, James Baldwin’s essay “The creative process”.  Laurie Sheck, a well-known poet who is a professor at the New School, however, got in trouble for that, as reported by both Inside Higher Education (IHE) and The Guardian (click on screenshots below):


Here’s the skinny from the Guardian:

The Pulitzer-nominated poet Laurie Sheck, a professor at the New School in New York City, is being investigated by the university for using the N-word during a discussion about James Baldwin’s use of the racial slur.

The investigation has been condemned by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (Fire), which is calling on the New School to drop the “misguided” case because it “warns faculty and students that good-faith engagement with difficult political, social, and academic questions will result in investigation and possible discipline”.

Sheck, who is white, was teaching a graduate course this spring on “radical questioning” in writing. She assigned students Baldwin’s 1962 essay The Creative Process, in which the black American writer and civil rights activist argued that Americans have “modified or suppressed and lied about all the darker forces in our history” and must commit to “a long look backward whence we came and an unflinching assessment of the record”. During the class, Sheck pointed to the 2016 documentary about Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro, and asked her students to discuss why the title altered Baldwin’s original statement, in which he used the N-word instead of negro during an appearance on a talk show.

Sheck told Inside Higher Education that a white student had objected to her language. According to Sheck, she questioned the student about her objection, who said she had been told by a previous professor that white people should never use the term. At the end of term, the student gave a presentation about racism at the New School.

Sheck told IHE that she used the word because Baldwin – a New School alumnus – did, and “as writers, words are all we have. And we have to give [Baldwin] credit that he used the word he did on purpose”.

There’s a bit more explanation at IHE (my emphasis):

During a conversation about Baldwin’s argument that the “war of an artist with his society is a lover’s war,” Sheck asked the class if anyone had seen the 2016 documentary film on Baldwin, “I Am Not Your Negro.” In so doing, she noted that the title of the documentary used the word “negro,” instead of the N-word, which Baldwin used in an appearance on “The Dick Cavett Show” (that clip of the show is in the documentary). Sheck said she used the actual word because Baldwin used it, and because future class texts included the word, as well.

“As writers, words are all we have,” Sheck said. “And we have to give [Baldwin] credit that he used the word he did on purpose.”

Immediately a white student in the class objected to Sheck’s language. Sheck, who is also white, said she asked the student why, to help her explore her own thinking about it. The student said she’d been told by a professor at her undergraduate institution that white people are never to use the term, under any circumstances, Sheck recalled. So Sheck told her that that was “one school of thought.”

And so there is an investigation of Sheck—simply for uttering a word that Baldwin himself used, in a discussion that was properly academic and relevant to the text at hand:

In June, months after the class, Sheck says she was called to a meeting where she was questioned about her choice of reading assignments, and how she had prepared students for discussing Baldwin’s essay. She told the university that graduate students on a literature course “should reasonably be expected to be able to discuss painful or offensive language and the various implications of altering the words of an iconic writer”. As the meeting ended, she was given the university’s guidelines for dealing with issues of discrimination and told to familiarise herself with them.

But Sheck told the Guardian that the university is proceeding with an investigation despite its regulations stating that complaints of discrimination must be lodged within 60 days of the incident, which had passed by the time the complaint was made against her.

“I have been left completely in the dark with the accusations against me still actively in place, and classes starting in two weeks,” she said. “Having taught at the New School with an impeccable record and consistently stellar student evaluations of my classes for nearly 20 years, this drawn-out approach appears to many as an unnecessarily callous and insensitive treatment of a devoted and long time faculty member.”

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) wrote a letter about this to the President of the New School, insisting that Sheck’s use of the word was not “discriminatory harassment,” but an exercise in academic freedom, and that the investigation of Sheck would have a chilling effect on academic freedom and free expression. FIRE urged the school to drop the investigation immediately. PEN America, less free-speechy than FIRE, has also called for the New School to drop the investigation.

The Guardian continues:

The New School’s response to Fire’s letter said only that it is “proud to be a place that embraces rigorous academic inquiry, diverse perspectives and respectful debate”, and that it “maintains confidentiality regarding personnel issues”. When asked by the Guardian if the investigation was proceeding, it said that open discussion of often difficult issues was central to its mission to provide an effective “learning environment”.

“In the context of the current political and cultural climate, we are bringing together faculty and students to use these principles to guide a pedagogical approach that respects academic freedom as well as an inclusive and respectful learning space,” it added.

This is bunkum. They do not embrace diverse perspectives” if someone can’t even say the identical word that Baldwin used repeatedly, and in a discussion about why he changed the use of that word in the tile of his book. In fact, even this brochure from the Film Club uses the n-word, and properly so, because it’s about the identical topic. In other words, the New School is stifling freedom of speech and catering to the offense culture in an unseemly way.

According to IHE, the faculty union has “advised Sheck to consider taking a ‘conciliatory position'” and even changing her curriculum, with alternatives of not reading passages aloud, or giving trigger warnings. Sheck replies, “I haven’t done anything wrong. . . So what we’re trying to do here is get things out in the open. When these things are covert and people feel quietly intimidated into changing the syllabus, that’s not going to help students. It just feels like enough is enough.”

Indeed. It’s one thing to use the word as a racial slur, another thing entirely to use it as part of an academic discussion of the very use of that word, and about why Baldwin changed the use. It’s hard for me to understand how someone, especially a white student, could be so offended by this discussion that they would report Sheck and make her life a living hell.

She did not do anything wrong, and it seems sheer lunacy to me that she’s being investigated. It’s not true that “white people should never use that word”. They shouldn’t use it as a racial slur, or in a way that implies bigotry, but there is nothing wrong with discussing it when an author has used it, and as part of a discussion about why the word was used and the resonance it has today.  If we can’t even say words that people consider painful and offensive, why should we be able to say anything that people consider painful and offensive. In other words, why have free speech? In this case, freedom of expression is the very thing at issue: Sheck was not promoting bigotry, but discussing the very offensiveness of a word.

The New School should drop this ridiculous investigation immediately, and I’ll write to them with that opinion. They simply look ridiculous for this kind of language policing in academic discourse.

71 thoughts on “New School Professor under investigation for saying “n-word” as used by James Baldwin

      1. IIRC, the word was inspired by Buncombe County (Asheville), North Carolina, the politics there (at least at some time in the past) being so notably corrupt/incompetent, or some such thing.

  1. This disturbing trend keeps getting worse. I suppose if a student files a complaint the school has no choice but to address it, but the action should be to dismiss it out of hand as baseless. There’s nothing to investigate.

  2. There is no word more offensive in American discourse than the “n-word”,

    Caveat: When used by a white person. (Or at least, non-black person).

    I’ve never thought it wise to let any word take on the nuclear-toxic power that people now ascribe to the N-word. A mere word given so much power merely uttering it, whatever the intention or context, can “justify” ending careers or make many people justified in responding with violence.

    And it’s not like humans are simply helpless in the face of words. WE ascribe words meaning and power.

    Many black people have taken away it’s power by using the term to affably refer to one another. (And there are quite a number of black people who don’t like this too!).
    So at least they have defanged it in a time-honored way to that degree. I wish they could somehow go further along the “sticks-and-stones” route when someone else, especially a racist says it. And take away the power when the racist says it too.

    That seems to me a surer way to make the word cause less trauma, and even die out or at least remove it’s power, than both keeping it in currency (e.g. Rap culture exporting it to the world) while ALSO granting it the most toxic, traumatizing power possible should anyone care to throw that epithet out. The goal of course isn’t to have everyone saying it, but to remove it’s power and make it less of a tempting weapon for the malicious.

    I know…I know…easier said than done. But it sure *seems* to me like the better route to go with these things, and not impossible.

    1. So did Richard Pryor, it’s in the title of his third album, the 1974 ‘This N…..’s Crazy’ followed by 1976s ‘Bicentenial N…..’. Between them was an album entitled ‘…Is It Something I Said?’ which has a cover depicting the comedian about to be burned at the stake, which nicely depicts the reaction of those of ‘Modern Hypersenitivities’ towards the use of the ‘Magic Word’ by a Person of Non Color.

      I will note that Wikipedia gives the full titles for all of his albums.

      1. I will note that Wikipedia gives the full titles for all of his albums.

        I bet that point has been through a number of “edit wars”.

  3. “I won’t use the word here, even though you know what it is and people automatically hear it when they hear the “n-word” phrase.”

    If we cannot refer to the term “nigger” in it’s historical context (in an intellectual setting) we are subjecting ourselves to a form of secular blasphemy.

    It makes academic discourse childish and frivolous.

    1. That’s perfectly OK with the More Woke Than Thou (TM) crowd. Black intellectuals like Baldwin can be thrown under the bus, along with the arguments Baldwin was making. It’s not like the point is actually to uphold the rights and achievements of black people.

    1. Thank you for providing this reference to John McWhorter. His writings on language are favorites of mine. And, I agree with what he says in the article.

      There should be no words that cannot be used in the proper context. Right or wrong, I taught my children that they could use any words, providing they knew the meanings and were willing to take the consequences if they chose to use them in settings with people they knew would be offended.

      Having been raised by parents from the midwest who sometimes used racist words. I once considered writing a poem with all such words they used. I found, and still find, such words offensive when used to denigrate particular people or persons. However, I would never suggest deleting them from dictionaries or vocabularies. Such a word used historically, as with Mark Twain, or to make a valid point about the writings of James Baldwin, is totally appropriate. Or, to repeat something written or spoken by anyone.

      How about: Let’s call a spade, a spade.

      1. “Let’s call a spade, a spade.”

        You are aware of the, errm, ambiguous meaning of that in the current context? 😉

        Or maybe not? Herein lies part of the problem. All these words start to have ‘special’ meanings. ‘Black’ was okay, then it was offensive, then it was ‘reclaimed’ (‘black is beautiful’), now it’s okay again (‘Black lives matter’) or is that only okay for black people to use? And then we had all those inaccurate circumlocuitous euphemisms like ‘colored people’ which is now offensive because it’s ‘people of color’ (what possible difference is there?). And apparently ‘niggah’ is perfectly OK again but only if used by a POC, preferably when rapping.

        I quite agree with you that context is everything. But these constantly shifting ‘rules’ of what is allegedly acceptable can catch anybody out and the bullshit quotient steadily goes up. To the point where everybody is pussyfooting around unsure of how to say anything without giving (contrived) offence to some self-important idiot.


  4. This article made me think of a couple of works. One is Faulkner’s Absalom Absalom!, my favorite of his books, which I am re-reading. He uses the n-word several times per page! Good luck discussing that.

    The other one is prompted by Jerry’s remark about other words. The great short story by J. D. Salinger, where the little (Jewish) girl is all upset because she heard somebody call her daddy a “kite”!

  5. This because, apparently, even academics are illiterate. Nobody is using that word when discussing how it is being used. I can easily write that the word “nigger” consists of six letters, uh-oh. I can link to the wikipedia article just fine, which is titled that way. It makes no sense to say that “the n-word is used by racists and in is appropriated in some black subcultures, such as hip hop and rap music” because that’s not true. They don’t actually use the “n-word” but say “nigger” just to rub it in. I must point out the very word they use in such contexts.

    At some point, I might copy/paste the Use-Mention Distinction, and that Jehova Skit by Monty Python.

    There are many situations where the Far Right is racist, and provokes only to walk it back, thinly veil their racism, or dogwhistle. But the Use-Mention Distinction is not one of those cases.

    I wonder how much brain is left when people are now outraged with people who are clearly not racists, obviously don’t call anyone with the slur, and that while Trump runs the country and crass racists are out in the open.

    1. Apparently, those who are aggrieved by any academic discussion of the n-word will also fight you on the “use/mention distinction.” I guess they feel it’s a highbrow rationalization. Or something.

      1. Or is it? You could help clear it up and spell out exactly why a word cannot be cited or mentioned? Should the wikipedia article be renamed, and every instance be replaced with “n-word”? If not, why not?

  6. You’d think that by the time students got to taking graduate courses in literature, they’d’ve come across the concept of the “signified and signifier”. It’s from the semiotics branch of linguistics, but it’s been a subject covered in literary criticism at least since the middle of the last century.

    Discussing the word and using the word are not equivalent.

  7. I mostly agree with you, but frankly I find kike, wop, and spic every bit as offensive as the word which I will refrain from typing here in deference to your preference. One of those words refers to you and me; why do you think it is OK to print that word but not the proscribed word?

    1. I agree it’s odd but somehow ‘nigger’ has – currently – acquired a unique emphasis. It will probably fade with time and be replaced by some other word as the ‘daren’t-mention-it-under-any-circumstances’ word.

      Of course this only has any rationale if you accept the mindset that words have some unique power quite divorced from circumstances. Voodoo thinking in other words.


  8. When I was young I taught a course in African American literature,lots in the mid sixties. There were a number of students in an upward bound program…getting any students to read is a task
    The books then could never be read aloud and be p.c. I was called a blue eyed devil for using word Negro.
    Tod ay we say Black lives matter. Those who say they don’t matter won’t trouble others

  9. Students frequently seem to go after professors in these cases. I wonder if it’s a power struggle issue – putting them on notice that professors may be the ones with the nominal authority, but woke culture means that the students can flip the tables on them at any moment.

  10. In South Africa the word “Kaffir” is used as a racial slur towards black people by racist white afrikaners who are very religious as well.
    The term was adopted from Arab traders centuries ago which means “the unbelievers”.

    When I flew to South Africa many years ago I overheard 2 Afrikaners having a racist conversation in the aisle and using the K-word.

    I approached them and informed them that I am a Kafir because I am an atheist and I find their comments insulting. They looked confused and went back to their seats.

  11. Primitive minds think words carry magical properties. I recall many years ago that childrens book Black Beauty was banned in California for using ‘bitch’. This happens to be the correct word for female dog. There should be nothing wrong with using it as such. But its obviously abominable to call another human being a bitch with intention to hurt. The word has no intrinsic badness, but its inappropriate used does. The same goes for how the n-word is used…. or should do.

    1. FWIW, I find today’s common use of the word in phrases like “Joe Blow is So-and-so’s bitch” really offensive. This despite it being so common that even presidential candidates use it.

      I have no problem using it for female dogs, however. Nor, to my own embarrassment, does it bother me when used as a verb meaning “to complain”. That should bother me, but it doesn’t. Go figure.

      1. OK, I’ll try and figure 🙂

        Why *should* ‘bitch’ in its sense of ‘to complain’ bother you anyway? Words can have several different meanings (even if they remotely arose form the same root) and some of those meanings may be offensive, others not.

        I’d say most words of vulgar connotation also have distinct non-vulgar meanings. ‘Screw’ for example.

        (Myself, I don’t mind the usage of which you complain, but that’s just me. I happen to find uses of ‘gut’ (like ‘gut instinct’) so inelegant as to be borderline offensive. Individual tastes vary. Or in other words, go figure 🙂


        1. I suspect (but don’t know because I haven’t investigated it) that it goes like this:

          1) “Bitch” is used for female dogs
          2) People (men) start using it to refer to women in a pejorative sense.
          3) People (men mostly) extend the use to refer to women’s speech in a pejorative way.
          4) Somewhere along that path women also use it against each other.
          5) Other uses develop.

          1. Sometimes nowadays I hear the word “witch” used as a euphemism for “bitch”. I wonder if originally this was the other way around. Rather than accuse someone of being a witch (potentially a capital crime), one could call her a bitch without having her referred to the Witchfinder General.

  12. I’m with Sheck and what she asked her class to consider was meant by the change of word. That’s an important discussion, obviously, and it should be had.

    Her investigators should listen to the Last Poets on track 10 of the soundtrack of the ‘Performance’ film.

    You said, “If that’s good enough for Stone…” – but that sidesteps the ‘why’? Why is it OK to quote other racial slurs but not that one? Is it because there is an ongoing injustice that doesn’t affect the others? No, I don’t think that’s it, nor even true.

  13. I was raised (In the deep south) not to use the “n” word, and don’t, because it was low class and unkind. I was also raised that a person was “Jewish” (faith) not a “Jew” (different kind of person). It was quite a shock to me (decades ago) to hear northern Jewish people refer to themselves as “Jews” (I had Jewish friends and playmates, but they didn’t call themselves “Jews” in the south).

    At any rate, I think the the total prohibition of the word, in any context, is political, and I don’t appreciate the politics.

    I would apply the same rationale to the LBQTGB (etc. whatever) discussion today. I knew boys who were extremely effeminate when we were young (out of the closet, now), but you were not unkind to them, it just wasn’t done by decent people. But the whole scene is political now and I don’t care for it, thank you.

  14. The prof. that loaded the student without showing what contexts using the word could be seen as a fail should take some of the heat off Sheck. It has been used in movies, music, comedy, a million miles from its bigotry past and that’s the discussion,

  15. I’m so sick of this. Especially when you’re reading and discussing the work of a black writer, how in the hell are you supposed to convey the magnitude of what they’ve written if you say “n-word” instead of “nigger” every time? It robs the author’s work of its meaning and weight, and this should be especially troubling when considering black authors.

  16. Oh, and good for Sheck for standing up for herself and exposing the faculty union’s odious “advice.” We need more people like her who won’t shrink from these bullies.

  17. This is so ridiculous.

    But I have a solution! When necessary, the teacher should designate a black person to stand at the podium with her. It could be a volunteer from the class or, even better, a handy graduate student. When the teacher comes to a point in their lecture where the n-word is needed, she gives a cue to the designated black person who says it. I’m not sure what to call this helper but it definitely should NOT be “designated n…”

    Ok, just kidding.

    1. My first thought as well. Seriously, someone should do it, and film it, as a demonstration of the ludicrousness of the position that demands it.

  18. Should one approach the pronunciation of “Nigeria” and “Niger” with fear and trembling? Should the countries names be changed?

    The word for black in Spanish is “negro.” “Orfeo Negro” is the title of a 1959 Brazilian film (in Portuguese, prominently featuring Bossa Nova music). Ought a substitute word be found in Espanol and Portugues?

    I wonder if “n-word” would suffice in courtroom testimony, where I assume exactitude and clarity are the order of the day.

    I once substitute taught in an (allegedly) “honors” high school chemistry class. Not a few students impudently kept looking at their cell phones. I expressed my displeasure at this lack of self-discipline and intellectual curiosity, unheard of in the Ancient Days when I was their age. I clearly and easily overheard one fine young gentleman say to another about me, “This cracker be trippin’!” Of course I recognized the use of the word “cracker.” I’d say it reasonably-enough approximates my overall skin tone. I don’t find that I’m particularly offended by it? Should I be? (Perhaps I’m not sufficiently “woke.”)

    1. I remember an angry discourse when a person used the word “niggardly” properly and in context.

      People making such a fuss over using words in their proper context and with no ill intent are not actually hurt or personally offended by the word.
      In the case under discussion in this post, the aggrieved party was claiming offense on behalf of a group she did not even belong to, but which she appointed herself spokesperson of.

      That takes an almost messianic level of hubris.

      1. I recall a conversation I once had with a white woman who objected when I referred to someone as “Mexican.” She informed me that it was ignorant and denigrating to call people from south of the border by the generic term “Mexican.” But the person I was referring to was from Mexico.

      2. My grade 9 and 10 English teacher used to assign an exercise he called “word fondling” – to become intimately associated with all the aspects of a word.

        He assigned “niggardly” once, to someone who would have been a target for the slur that we are discussing. This did raise a few eyebrows, and when she presented her findings orally later, she looked pleased that she had discovered or was able to explain the difference.

        1. Word fondling sounds great. I would have enjoyed that in school. Nowadays, not only would “niggardly” get the teacher in trouble but “fondling” too I suspect. They’d make them change it to “word hugging”.

  19. The magic of words is a very old story—in orthodox Judaism, the name of God can never be uttered, and instead one says “ha shem” (the name); if the English word “God” had such magic powers, we would just say “the G-word”. In Tudor England, questioning the Latin word “transsubstantiatio” was a capital offense.

    In fact, the magical power of words is basically the core of post-modernism, critical race theory, critical gender theory, and all the rest of our modern counterparts to theology and metaphysics in the early medieval curriculum. I wonder whether a precursor of the scientific revolution was the use of quantifiable entities (measured sizes, shapes, weights, positions, orbits, frequencies, etc.) in place of magic words.

  20. Anyone remember Laugh-In’s Flying Fickle Finger of Fate award?

    Someone needs to send the student a cheap brass snowflake on a little wooden stand, with an appropriate inscription.

  21. It is ludicrous.

    Some words have ‘bad’ i.e pejorative meanings, but there should be none that are taboo for mention in context. Otherwise you get into the ridiculous situation where nobody is safe from transgressing some arbitrary ‘rule’ about what can and cannot be said, and the bogosity index rises to 100%.

    As Aneris mentioned, the Life of Brian ‘Jehovah’ sketch is apt:

    The older I get, the more Life of Brian starts to look less like a comedy and more like a social commentary. 🙁


  22. Have you ever heard people from some parts of England say the word “figure”?

    They say “figger”. That’s just the way they speak. Likewise many people in the south, black and white (some have learned to “talk like the man on the 6 o’clock news” lately, but not all). Southern speech is a bit “lazy”, from the front of the mouth without involving the muscles in the back of the mouth needed to say “neegro”.

    That’s how the n-word was born. Even when people said “colored folk”, they said “cullud” folk. It was as much a matter of speech patterns as anything, although it did become a pejorative.

  23. George Carlin covered this rather succinctly.

    He goes through all the “offensive” names and points out that the words themselves are innocent: it’s actually the context that makes them “good” or “bad”.

    So using a word in a classroom means it’s simply a word meant for discussion. Equating that context with the context of a racist who intends to do emotional harm is absolutely not the same.

    Here’s the link, with the presumption that Dr Coyne doesn’t mind:

  24. I hate to use the term “reverse discrimination”, but there it is. As for the student who said a prior professor told her a white person should not use the n-word “under any circumstances” – for crying out loud; can’t you learn to think for yourself? Never shout “FIRE” in a crowded auditorium – EXCEPT when there’s an actual fire. Never use the n-word, EXCEPT ….

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