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.