Chicago teacher fired for using racial slur didactically

February 9, 2022 • 12:00 pm

Does intent matter when you use a racial slur, or the offense taken? I think one must consider intent, though the NYT and many other venues take the hard line that if someone’s offended by hearing a racial slur, the slur-er deserves to be sanctioned. (That’s why science writer Donald McNeil was fired for using the n-word didactically in a discussion. The NYT staffers were offended and couldn’t bear it because they were “harmed” and felt endangered.)

And now we have a case in Chicago also involving uttering the n-word in a discussion where it was not intended as a slur. This time it was a teacher in a Catholic school, Mary DeVoto, who suffered the ultimate penalty short of death: she was fired. The article appear in both the Chicago Tribune (paywalled for most) and in NBC News below (click on screenshot):

From the Tribune:

It was one terrible word that ended Mary DeVoto’s nearly 42-year career at Mother McAuley Liberal Arts High School on Chicago’s Southwest Side, and she said she wishes she’d never said it.

During a Jan. 28 discussion in her world history class, she used the N-word during a talk about Native American culture, where the conversation with students had evolved into sports team names, such as the former moniker for the Washington, D.C. professional football team. [JAC: The former “Washington Redskins” team, now the “Commanders”.]

A student asked why the former name was offensive, and DeVoto said she was “trying to emphasize that that is as abhorrent (to Native Americans) as the N-word, which I used in full,” she said Thursday.

“I can’t believe it came out of my mouth,” she said.

DeVoto was pulled out of her classroom that day and suspended, then fired this past Monday. An online petition to seek her reinstatement has been established by her family, while some parents of McAuley students are applauding the decision by administration of the all-girls Catholic high school in Chicago’s Mount Greenwood neighborhood to fire DeVoto.

The classroom discussion was captured on an audio recording, which was quickly shared on social media and resulted in DeVoto’s suspension and later dismissal.

School officials declined requests for comment Thursday, but issued a statement to the Southtown saying it “does not condone this language and is deeply saddened by the hurt and pain this has caused our students and community.”

“With the intent to emphasize the abhorrence of slurs, the teacher wrongfully compared and egregiously miscommunicated two racial slurs, including using the N-word in its entirety,” the school statement said.

Devoto met with school administrators offering to apologize or do anything she could to “fix it”, but it was too late. They canned her. The reason they gave was this:

In a statement announcing DeVoto’s termination, the administration said the firing was made more necessary “because of a subsequent conversation with the teacher in which the same racial slur was communicated in its entirety several times despite clear and formal directives to stop.

“The N-word is never acceptable in any gathering of, or setting with, the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas,” the school said.

So I guess she uttered the word explaining her actions to the administration.  You can bet your bippy that DeVoto would never have used that word again had they kept her on. And the proper sanction for the use of this word is not firing—not unless it’s used as an insult. It wasn’t. She should have been called into the Principal’s Office and told that she should apologize to the school and never say that word again. Is uttering this word, even didactically, enough to end your career. How crazy has this country become when a single word can do this, regardless of intent? At long last, have people no sense of forgiveness and empathy?

Yes, of course the word is deeply offensive. But punishing people severely for using it didactially seems to me extreme, and I say this as a Jew who’s been called various names like “Hebe” and “kike”.  I would not ask for someone to be fired who called me any of the many pejorative terms for “Jew.” There must be some understanding, and there must be some forgiveness.

In the end getting a teacher fired who used the n-word didactically, seems to me to be an exercise of power—the power to punish to the utmost someone who says a word that offends you.  Yes, if DeVoto told a student she was a “dirty n—“, of course that’s a firing offense. But people seem unable to calibrate different usages here. There are no gradations on the punishment dial.

At the end, in another sad part, DeVoto’s daughter has begged for “retraining”:

DeVoto said she founded a diversity club at the school in the 1980s to “give a voice to children of different ethnic backgrounds.”

In a statement, the school said it has, over the past two years, “enacted a comprehensive, multitiered plan to foster a community that honors the dignity of every individual,” and that faculty and staff have attended training sessions focused on culturally responsive education.

Stephanie Rahman, a 2006 McAuley graduate and one of DeVoto’s three daughters, said she and her family hope the school reconsiders its decision to fire her mother and that, as an alternative to firing, DeVoto could take part in additional training the school has provided.

What kind of “retraining” are they thinking about here? Aversion therapy, as in A Clockwork Orange?  Our land is now horribly polarized, and there seems to be no empathy to temper that polarization.

Every day I get more depressed about the future of America.

82 thoughts on “Chicago teacher fired for using racial slur didactically

  1. This is all pretty rich coming from a Catholic school. Maybe they should pay more attention to the rape of their children instead of the offence of words. Sam Harris recently touched on the pathological fear of the N-word in his discussion of Joe Rogan’s use of the word that someone put together from past discussions.

    1. Rogan also appears to mention it, not used it, see next comment. I’ve seen the offensive n-word supercut of Rogan, whichis bleep-fest, but there is apparently always a “the word …” in front, i.e. he discusses the usage, which is mention, not called anyone the n-word.

    2. I am furious at Joe Rogan for apologizing. He did not slam someone with the word. He is a comedian, and his usage, despite the spin video created by a Democratic SuperPac, was the equivalent to ‘didactic’ on the street.

      Rogan is not a bigot.

      Man, I am really angry he apologized.

  2. It does seem unfair that she was fired for using the N-word for teaching purposes and not as a racial slur. Context is relevant. This smacks of thought policing.

  3. In the end getting a teacher fired who used the n-word didactically, seems to me to be an exercise of power …

    Or simply (as we would say in the UK) arse-covering behaviour. They’re worried that if they don’t fire her then they’ll be denounced in turn for not having done so.

    After all, anyone who does not denounce a witch must be a …? #salem

    I await the next level, where students start objecting to any mention of the euphemism “the n-word”, as being way too proximate to the magic word itself.

    After all, didn’t one student report heart palpitations on seeing a law exam with the redaction “n_____”, getting the instructor sent for struggle sessions at a re-education camp?

    1. I await the level after, when many students are blissfully unaware of what the banned word that has never been mentioned in their presence actually is.

      The story I heard about China, a few years ago, was that some HK group managed to get a Tiananmen Square commemoration published in a newspaper. Because none of the young censors working there had ever been told that the anniversary was a day they had to watch out for…

    2. I am afraid that I agree with your second paragraph. It is spinelessness from administrators. Yes, they have hard decisions to make at times that will not please everyone. So why not accept that there will be fall out and do what is right, not what appears to be easiest. Looking at cost/ benefit, this appeared to be the easiest path. The self-righteousness of their public statements are infuriating. As Diana pointed out #1, the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church knows no bounds.

  4. Joe Biden, 1985, using the word didactically.

    slide to :36 if you want to hear it loud and clear right away.

    You know, when we block “The Word” it takes the heat away from how utterly ugly and hateful it is. I think we should have at it. Not to mention that when it is “allowed” for black humans, all it does is divide divide divide. We should despise it together.

  5. Worse, it seems in a lot of these situations, students are intentionally setting the stage, with their phones out and on the ready.

  6. Wokies and their imitators have a true obsession with the magic power of words, reminiscent equally of
    medieval theology and of children;s stories about wizards. There are evil words like this one, the mere
    mention of which calls up demons from the underworld. Then there are sacred words, like “Inclusion”,
    “systemic racism”, and “intersectional”, which must be used in the self-flagellations issued in 2020 by Dental departments like Fixed Partial Dentures — sacred words expected to work magic.

    I think all of this wordolatry descends from from the post-modernism of a generation ago—when it was fashionable to claim that there was no independent reality, only texts. Of course, back then, nobody took this affectation seriously, but now it has become, uhhh, scriptural.

    1. I blame the obsession with the power of words to a whole generation having grown up watching Harry Potter and worrying about saying “Voldemort”.

      1. But one of the major points made in the books is how foolish it is to be afraid of the word. Harry and Dumbledore are the ones who ALWAYS use the name Voldemort, and they are the great heroic icons of the story. I took the lesson of the books of specifically pointing away from fear of words.

  7. “Does intent matter when you use a racial slur, or the offense taken?”

    Some peeps, such as PZ “tentacles” Myers insist “intent isn’t magic”, meaning the context doesn’t matter. Naturally, there have been numerous examples where people have pointed to something he said or did, and he gets angry, and demands that the context mattered.

    And intent doesn’t matter, then there are problems at FreeThoughtBlogs since examples of the “n-word” are used numerous times.

    I know, because I’ve checked.

    1. “A proper theory of morality depends upon the separation of intentions from results” (Stephen Jay Gould, Full House, Chapter 14).

      Gould 1, Myers 0

      Jon Gallant’s comment (#7 above) is particularly à propos:

      Wokies and their imitators have a true obsession with the magic power of words, reminiscent equally of medieval theology and of children’s stories about wizards. There are evil words like this one, the mere mention of which calls up demons from the underworld.

    2. Of course context matters. If simply saying the word is horrific enough to get people fired from their jobs, then there are a number of black rappers who should never be allowed in the recording studio again, or allowed to play live on stage.

  8. FFS. Black folk have legitimate beefs about their treatment by American society — huge beefs regarding historical treatment and smaller (albeit still legitimate) beefs regarding current treatment.

    Racial epithets used didactically ain’t one of ’em. It is, instead, an unfortunate distraction from them.

    1. Yes, “an unfortunate distraction” from really fixing anything…maybe like in the 60’s and 70’s when the police arrested a lot small time marijuana sellers and users while armed and dangerous serious drug dealers seemed to go free.
      Just an update for the record: the Washington Football Team has settled on its official new name, the Washington Commanders as of last week.

  9. “Stop! Stop, will you?! Stop that! Stop it! Now, look! No one is to stone anyone until I blow this whistle! Do you understand?! Even, and I want to make this absolutely clear, even if they do say ‘Jehovah’.”

    1. Well quoted! When words become taboos, the 21st century version of stonings will occur, as in the case of this teacher.

  10. I will never buy the N-word as magic incantation that causes “harm” to those that hear it. If it can’t be mentioned, as “Voldemort” in the Harry Potter books, we are yielding reason to a posse of wilting violets with a bizarre faux reality.

    Listen to any of a huge number of rap and hip hop songs. Listen to Dave Chappelle’s standup. Listen to Richard Pryor’s standup. Listen to Chris Rock’s standup. The N-word is used all the time. So don’t give me this crap that somehow, when a white person mentions the word, in a context of discussing it or its use or its cultural context, that, somehow it becomes a magic spell that strikes you down. Bullsh!t!

    As in L’Affaire McNeil.

    Sam Harris has an excellent analysis of L’Affaire Rogan. I, too, think he need not have apologized for using The Word (TM).

    Sure, using it as a slur is bad. Very rude. But is it really any worse than calling a Hispanic person by a racial slur? Or a Jewish person? Or, as people did when I was a kid, calling someone a dumb Pollack and telling Pollack jokes? If so, why?

    I find it ridiculous that someone can be fired for mentioning The Word, even in an abstract context, while no one bats an eye at a black woman walking around my wife’s former school, shouting at the top of her lungs, over and over, “I hate all white people!”

    I don’t use The Word. But I don’t use any racial slurs. I am not a racist. And it would not be racist in me to mention The Word in an abstract context.

    1. Interesting thought experiment (at least I think so): gather a group of black people together in the room and play them a rap record that includes liberal use of the N-word. Ask the audience if they are offended or have been “harmed” and why or why not. Then tell them that the artist who recorded the track is a white man. Observe the reaction. I suspect that, if they are ordinary people, it will be “meh”. If wokistas, well, I don’t know.

  11. There seems to be an error in the name of her employers. Surely it should be the Sisters of No Mercy?

        1. I saw them* in 2017 (I think). Unfortunately, Eldritch phoned his performance in and the consensus was they did a poor gig.

          * I say “them”: Andrew Eldritch is the only one of the original line up left.

    1. “They’re broke. They don’t have a ‘negative cash flow position’!”

      (Am reminded of the conceit of a business owner’s activity – apparently per capitalist theory – being too elevated to be labelled “labor” but rather “sweat equity.”)

  12. I can see a racist relishing the chance to use such words “didactically,” over and over again. So I think we can’t just lay down usage rules, we need to apply some common sense about impact and necessity too. Having said that, she seems to have been just a normal person who made an idiot mistake.

    I really can’t think of what was going through her head. I get the point she was trying to make, and it’s a reasonable one to make. But it could’ve been made just as easily by saying “‘Redskin’ is as offensive to native Americans as the “n-word” is to blacks,” and that would’ve made exactly the same point without the offense.

    Soooo…yeah not firing offense. But poor judgment to be sure. We *should* expect a good teacher to know how to get a lesson across without *unnecessarily* upsetting their students.

    1. I could see her using the full word so that the asker truly felt the impact. Otherwise it would be equivalent to someone being offended by the R-word.

      1. Nailed it, Diana. If she had censored herself by referring to “the n-word”, then she would have undermined her argument that Redskin was just as offensive. If you can say one and not the other than the one must be less offensive than the other.

        Still, I highly doubt that Native Americans really do find Redskin as offensive as Black people (and almost everyone else) find nigger. There are many worse that no one would ever call a football team. The name doesn’t even come from their skin colour, which isn’t in the slightest red, but from vermillion war paint. Renaming sports teams, like renaming buildings and tearing down statues, is just a political demonstration of power: see what we just made you do on threat (or actual commission) of violence?

        The teacher would have been better to have just said that Native Americans asked us to remove gratuitous references to them in commercial ventures and we are doing so in the interests of good will, in hopes of not being compelled to make more substantive concessions. She would have kept her job as long as she hadn’t sounded too cynical in front of young minds.

        1. Yes, I agree the comparison was flawed and that is probably all that was really wrong. It would have been simpler to say that a group of people don’t like being referred to that way and it doesn’t matter if we find it offensive or not, they do so it’s only polite and respectful that we change the name.

      1. Lots of Native American fans of the Redskins, the Chiefs, and of course the Cleveland Indians, named as a tribute to one of their players. A few super woke natives added legitimacy to the cancel campaign, the same way some “hereditary elders” are sometimes at the front of other protests, even though they do not necessarily represent tribal leadership or the majority of tribal members.
        As far as words that begin with “N”, the horror folks claim to experience hearing the word in any context would seem much more believable if the word were not so common in popular music and some people’s vernacular.
        The people who claim to be the most outraged by this sort of thing, are otherwise almost impossible to offend.
        I could never sing this-

        Billboard’s #1 R&B song right now is nearly as offensive to my ears, and of course abounds with the N word. It is the rule, rather than the exception. Right now, these songs are being played at high school and college parties If the wrong drunk freshman sings along, that kid faces fairly severe penalties. That is absurd.
        Also, if you want an environment where people are persecuted or prosecuted for saying certain words, at some point you need to write them into the rules, and discuss them, at least in the context of discussing the rules or documenting the enforcement of them.

        inquisitor- “You said the J word!”
        accused- “Yes, every Passover I say ‘Next year in Jerusalem”
        inquisitor- “No, the other J word”
        accused- “Jeroboam?”
        inquisitor- “No, you idiot. Jehovah.”
        accused- “Well you certainly said it. Is there a law against that?”
        inquisitor- “Not specifically. We can neither write it down nor mention it at inquisitor school.”

        1. Anyone who sings along with Cardi B has taste issues, in my opinion, profanity aside.

          For that last bit, I would say to them, well that’s not God’s real name, that a Greek bastardization of the Hebrew name, which is clearly Yahu wahu.

        2. Re “If the wrong drunk freshman sings along, that kid faces fairly severe penalties.”

          This reminds me of the appalling 2020 story in which a boy filmed his purported female friend enunciating the “ginger” word (unscramble that) in a casual social situation, in no way intending harm or insult to her “biracial” executioner.

          The kid literally lay in wait for a couple of years before “exposing” his “friend” when it would have maximum impact, and she in fact lost her spot on the University of Tennessee cheerleading squad.

          If her “friend” was so offended, he could easily have taken her aside privately (at the time!) and said, “Hey, I know you don’t mean to offend, but I really don’t like hearing when you say the ‘ginger’ word. Do you mind not using it around me? Thanks.”

          Instead, he schemed to destroy her. The story helped me to see that all this “offense” at the word is at some level just a power play by shitty, unethical people.

    2. Yes, but the only reason it was poor judgement is because it’s become taboo for white people to mention it even when they are not being racist. It should not have been considered an “idiot mistake” in the first place. And, by the way, in some quarters, using the word “idiot” is also frowned upon.

    1. Mistuh Conrad — he dead.

      That sick fella aboard the Narcissus — he dead, too. Happened right before the ship made port in the Azores, IIRC.

  13. Look for the conversation between Chris Williamson and Coleman Hughes on this topic on youtube. Pretty straightforward. Ie I agree with them and Jerry’s point of view.! However I don’t know if permitting free use or taking note of the apparent intent in use would finally take the hurt out of it and/or dilute the effect of the word all around.?
    And John McWhorter also has a thing or two to say.

  14. I guess it never occurred to the Catholic leadership to ask those guiltless among them to cast the first stone….hypocrites all.

  15. The “N-word” is a sacred word that none but the high priests (blacks) are permitted to utter.

    In anthropological term, it’s taboo.

    Rather strange for a Catholic school to treat it as such.

    I say, smite them diadactically with a copy of Huckleberry Finn!

  16. And in society in general, at least society in the U.S., intent and context inarguably do matter. The use of the word is commonplace in sections of black society, ranging from slur to endearment. Not an eyelid batted there, in stark contrast to say, a university campus.

  17. Hmm…I tried posting a relevant comment just now and it failed to even show as awaiting moderation. This is a test comment…

  18. If you want a laugh, search for ‘Everything’s Gonna Be All White’ on YouTube, the first result, a trailer for a film of that title, which is apparently about the ‘evil of the White Man'(tm).

    Then a whole bunch of reaction videos, mostly by B/I/POC commenting on how blatantly racist the film is.

  19. I will believe all the offense taken to the word is in good faith the minute these same people stop buying or listening to the rappers who use it. The comedians. The people who have user names and posts and everything else where they replace the “er “ at the end with an “a”.

    If it’s used as a slur against somebody, I get the fact that punishment is warranted. But used innocently, this is a total overreaction.

  20. Why no mention of Ms. DeVoto’s union grieving her firing? That’s why teachers pay union dues—not all of the money goes to finance Democratic Party election campaigns, even in Illinois, surely. One hopes her union isn’t so woke that it will throw her under the bus.

    1. As a private, Catholic high school, it may not have a union. I couldn’t find any indication in various new reports that it has one.

      1. Schools and other employers don’t “have” unions, that they offer as a benefit like a health plan. Teachers and other employees form them under free association. If she’s not in one, she is screwed.
        Lots of people like working in non-union shops because they don’t have to pay union dues. So there you go.

  21. I’m sorry, but had she simply used the term “n-word”, everybody would still have understood what she meant, and none of this would have happened. Here in South Africa the equivalent would be the “k-word” (I prefer not to explain), and a number of (white) people have also gotten into serious trouble for using it.. The solution is so simple, just do not use the word, EVER!!

    1. Re “The solution is so simple, just do not use the word, EVER!!”

      As a practical matter, yes.

      However, giving any word such incredible power is a grave error. The “ginger” word (unscramble that) is now seen as having almost magical powers to hurt; the mere sight of ink on a page or sound waves reaching a human ear is “violence” and “racism,” regardless of the context.

      We should never, ever give in to this kind of magical thinking.

      And just to forestall criticism: I am a dyed-in-the-wool liberal who does not, and would not, use the actual “ginger” word as a pejorative or carelessly. I do find it childish that we all blanch when someone with the “wrong” skin tone uses it didactically or perfectly in context.

  22. The “n-word” is now tantamount to a magical spell, an incantation, a talisman of great power around which a long, dull fantasy novel might be written. The very marks on a page signifying the letters of “ginger” (scrambled) and the sound waves reaching human ears when “ginger” is spoken aloud are like a spell from Voldemort or Saruman, wholly evil and unwaveringly powerful.

    Re intent vs. impact: I’ve noted the hypocrisy of the current wokesters when it comes to the trans issue. Trans people *intend* others to see them as X or Y gender, but many simply do not, based on appearances, voice, or whatever. This is deemed “transphobic,” but isn’t it just a case in which the woke are putting intent over impact?

  23. I’ve read all the comments now and they are mostly decrying what happened to this poor teacher and pointing out that context really does matter. Some of us have pointed out the extensive use of the word by black rappers and comedians as evidence for that assertion. We are all shocked at the severity of the consequences of using the word didactically.

    But only Leslie MacMillan has been brave enough to spell “nigger” out in full.

    1. Thanks for the acknowledgement. Easy to be brave when safe, though.
      Didactic use ought to be protected. I made a conscious decision to spell it out to undermine the incorrect argument that Redskin was just as bad as the n-word. (See, now that I’ve made my point, I don’t need to spell it out again.)

      Now, brace yourself for two situations where being brave wasn’t safe:

      In the 1960s, Québec separatist Pierre Vallières was sent to prison for his role in an increasingly violent campaign that culminated in murder and kidnapping in 1970. From his cell, he wrote an oppression manifesto published in French as Blancs Nègres d’Amérique.. Now, nègre translates differently depending on the translator’s interpretation of the original writer’s intent. Claude Debussy wrote a short piano method called “The Little Nigar”, in 1909, aka The Little Negro and Le Petite Nègre. Today any of these renderings would require some nervous clearing of the throat and anxious glances to see who had overheard. Whatever, Vallières’s book was translated and published in English as, White Niggers of America. You can buy it on Amazon with the title spelled out in full, and the Toronto Public Library has a copy with that full title, no asterisks, in its card catalogue. (I haven’t read it but it was required reading for my poli-sci friends.)

      Fast forward to 2020. The CBC suspended one of its respected journalists, Wendy Mesley, for referring to the book by its English title in editorial meetings about racism (not on the air.) She eventually retired early, taking the view that wokism had taken precedence over trying to do something about racism at the CBC.

      And in December 2021, Frances Widdowson, a tenured professor in political science, and a Marxist to boot, was fired from Mount Royal University in Calgary for a long string of political thought offenses, one of which was her defence of Mesley’s mention-not-use reference to the book. She had mentioned it by its full title, as Mesley had done. Some people just can’t bear to hear the word, and bite back. Hard. (Prof. Widdowson’s faculty association is grieving her firing..)

  24. “The N-word is never acceptable in any gathering of, or setting with, the Sisters of Mercy”. To misquote Douglas Adams, this must be some new definition of ‘mercy’ of which I was previously unaware.

    In a statement, the school said it has, over the past two years, “enacted a comprehensive, multitiered plan to foster a community that honors the dignity of every individual,” Honoring the dignity of every individual- apart from the teacher they’ve decided to throw under the bus for the sake of an easy life.

  25. Characters in the Ken Burns documentary on the US Civil War say the word “nigger” several times, because they quote 19th-century people. I showed the documentary in history class in New Zealand, and no student objected. So, there is some good news.

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