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Letter to the Editor: In defense of the students who walked out of Rosen’s class

In her Feb. 8 letter to the editor, Professor Carolyn Rouse offered a pedagogy for Rosen’s class as contextual background for why certain students should not have walked out. Unfortunately, her letter entirely misses the point as to why the students walked out of class. There is no pedagogical purpose to using “n****r” versus “N-word” or some other euphemism in any class. What are the pedagogical reasons for using “n****r” repeatedly in class if your goal is for students to be able to argue why hate speech should or should not be protected? Can this discussion not take place without the full pronunciation of the most incendiary and racially divisive word in our lexicon? To argue that there is educational value in this line of thinking is at best, disingenuous and at worst, something else entirely. This is one of the many red herrings Rouse offers in her recent letter to the editor. The examples provided regarding a student wiping her feet on the American flag may not elicit the same response because one cannot conflate the 400-year history of the word “n****r” with those upset regarding desecration over the flag. Has anyone offended by flag desecration been oppressed, discriminated against, or systemically denied civil rights? In fact, both flag desecrators and those offended by them have been offered more protections than those called “n****r” by their oppressors. Should we also argue a pedagogical reason for using the word “f**got” or “homo” so that gay people can move beyond their emotions, too, and make an argument about why hate speech should or should not be protected? Certainly not!

Rouse argues that prior students did not object and that the students' reactions are indicative of the level of overt anti-black racism in the country today. This is another weak justification for the educational value of using the word “n****r.” There were also blacks who drank from “black only fountains” without protest. There are some democrats, both women and minorities, who voted for President Trump even though his campaign was clearly offensive. Are these students any different than the law students at Mercer University who walked out of the constitutional law class of professor David Oedel in 2014 or students who protested Andrea Quenette’s use of the “N-word” in a communications lecture at the University of Kansas in 2015? Those incidents occurred during the Obama years. So perhaps, while there were no objectors at Columbia or Princeton, there were yet protests in similar situations elsewhere. 


Rouse also implies that Rosen is above reproach because he “was fighting battles for women, Native Americans, and African-Americans before these students were born.” This is the kind of civil rights chest thumping that has alienated today’s generation. It is the reason today’s fight for justice is championed mostly by organizations like BLM and not by old guard activists. Sometimes, the past can be a terrible justification for actions or lack thereof in the present. If the goal is for students to know more upon leaving a class than when they entered, perhaps these students should be celebrated for not giving anyone a freebie for their past civil rights credentials.

Lastly, I want to address the final red herring argument: that these students did not trust the process. What exactly is the process in which they should trust? Perhaps, Rosen fails to set the table in a way that would allow anyone to give him a license to use such a controversial word. So, here are a few critical questions now before the Department of Anthropology and the University itself:

1. As a white educator, does Rosen have the same level of authority and privilege in using the word “n****r” that an African-American may have? An African-American educator certainly has no intellectual advantage over others but students’ perceptions of a white person teaching a class where the word “n****r,” not the “N-word,” is repeatedly used in the course might well elicit the same initial political and critical suspicion that an educator with a heterosexual, Christian male identity might elicit teaching a LGBTQ+ writing course. 

2. Did Rosen establish some fundamental ground rules regarding how they, as a community of adults, would conduct and smoothly navigate class discussions of this extremely sensitive topic? Or did he assume the privilege to do as he pleased? 

3. Did Rosen discuss quite candidly the educational purposes of the course, the potentially volatile nature of the subject and the uncensored course content, and the absolute necessity of respecting each other and of creating a community working toward a common goal? 

4. Why did Rosen deem it necessary to seek permission before showing pornographic images during the discussion of pornography in this class but did not deem it necessary to seek permission before using “n****r” during the hate speech discussion? Why was he concerned about offending some students but not others?


These are fundamentally critical questions. Students can only trust the process and stay focused on the goals and objectives of the course when they are included in the decision making regarding the use of the most historically incendiary word in our country – especially during Black History month.

To caricaturize the students’ response as merely emotional is disingenuous at best and tone deaf at worst. Having listened to the recording of the class, I observed that Professor Rosen does not attempt to credential himself, nor carefully navigate the topic so that all students could trust the whole process.

As Phillip Barrish, a white professor at the University of Texas, posits, there is “an unavoidable paradox encountered by white liberal professors who set out to practice antiracist pedagogy in mostly, but not entirely, white classrooms.” 

I feel bad for academicians who stop listening and learning from their students. Trust is earned in the present, not just the past. Perhaps, the students who walked out have learned more from Rosen’s class than those who remain – that unlike other at universities with similar incidents, Princeton professors can never be wrong and find no need to apologize for hurting others. This is a tough lesson for these students to have learned over the past few days. The historic and systematic oppression of black people in America is quite a unique phenomenon. The students’ reaction to a white professor using the word “n****r” without buy-in is justified and intelligent if you are a descendant of oppressed Africans in America. Perhaps, they were wise to GET OUT. I close with this quote from M. Garlinda Burton’s 1994 book “Never Say N****r Again! An Antiracism Guide for White Liberals”:

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“Never say ‘n****r’ again. Never have I heard this word spoken by a white person—or a black one, for that matter—without feeling terribly angry and uncomfortable. Too much history and hostility are conjured up by this word. . . . I don't care how you use it. I don't care if you're quoting some horrible white racist you abhor— do not say it, and confront those white people who do.”

De’Andre Salter, MTh Concerned Parent