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.