Professor Lawrence Rosen’s course ANT 342: Anthropology of Law is the reason I majored in anthropology. He commanded the attention of 200 students as if the class were a five-person seminar. Twenty years later, I still remember the examples he used in class and how excited I felt to have found an intellectual home at the University.
This weekend, a few Princeton friends and I discussed Rosen’s recent use of the n-word in class. We agreed that it is never acceptable for a white person to say this word. One friend observed that, if Rosen’s goal was to ignite debate, he accomplished his goal the first time students reacted to his demonstration of hate speech. Why did he repeat the slur and why did the students walk out? Did Rosen adequately acknowledge the power differential between himself and the students? Did he recognize that only a handful of students in the room could understand, could really feel the punch of his words? An anthropologist is required to acknowledge their own position and to put their own power into context. If students felt disrespected strongly enough to walk out, was Rosen adhering to this anthropological tenet?
Chair of the Department of Anthropology Carolyn Rouse defends Rosen, saying that his words served a pedagogical purpose. But there is valuable nuance missing from her defense. Professor Rosen’s intent was pedagogical, but his words were experienced by the students as hate speech. Their reactions were not based on a political point of view. They were based on lived experience. Students didn't feel safe enough to learn from him so, by definition, Rosen’s actions did not educate.
It's OK to say he made a mistake. It’s possible, even admirable, to defend a person without defending their actions. I’ve known professor Rosen for twenty years. He’s a wonderful teacher who cares about his students. Young people would be lucky to learn from him, as they have for the past forty years.
Rouse reports that students in previous years didn’t object to Rosen’s use of the word, and she attributes the recent reaction to the current political climate. The current president did bring racism to the fore, but he also kindled resistance. We don’t know what students were feeling in previous years. Maybe they felt just as angry or uncomfortable but didn’t speak up.
Rouse treats the walk-out as a missed opportunity for the students who left. But I believe the real missed opportunity is for the students who stayed. To frame walking out as “not trusting the process” is to make the classroom the colonial center. Wouldn't it be more interesting to ask why the remaining students stayed? If a student felt no discomfort from the slur, or found their discomfort tolerable enough to stay, that reveals a degree of privilege. Students who remained in the lecture missed the opportunity to join their fellow students outside the classroom, to be curious about the histories and lived experiences that make this one word so intolerable.
Professor Rouse defends Rosen’s incendiary actions as a flash point for learning to debate legal questions. But expecting the dissenting students to dispassionately debate amid hate speech is tantamount to silencing their experience. Personal experiences inform legal judgments. For example, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor ’76 brings to the bench a first-hand understanding of prejudice. Empathy makes her a more effective judge. Many of Rosen’s students will become lawyers, some of them judges. Few of them will have endured prejudice. How valuable it would be if these students became anthropologists of their own lives, curious to understand the experiences of others and cultivate empathy.
Reading Rouse’s defense reminded me of a familiar feeling I had at Princeton. Under the guise of intellectual debate, professors and students often made arguments from a privileged vantage point without adequately discussing, or even acknowledging, that other perspectives were right there in the room. It never struck me as intellectual to speak from a privileged perspective. It just felt provincial. This feeling contributed to my experience of “otherness” at Princeton. The Department of Anthropology was a safe haven, a place that celebrated and engaged dissenting voices. Has that changed?
—Elizabeth Cobb ’99
Elizabeth Cobb is an alumnus of the Class of 1999. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.