Content Warning: The following opinion guest contribution includes quotations of a racial slur.
Joe Scanlan has held many titles across prestigious art and academic institutions — including his current position as an art professor here at Princeton — but none carry more precision in defining his career than racist. With both literal and conceptual blackface in his portfolio — the latter referring to his controversial entrance into the 2014 Whitney Biennial under the name Donelle Woolford (a black female artist of his invention) — Scanlan’s career has been marked with one racially-charged stunt after another, each purporting to be artistic and academic but consistently failing to approach either.
Last week, Scanlan pulled one more stunt — he used the word “nigga” in my Thursday afternoon seminar, VIS 321: Words as Objects. Unlike other incidents in Scanlan’s history, egregious in their own right, this time the harm of his reckless racial provocations fell upon myself and the other students in his classroom. Scanlan unleashed racism in his capacity as a professor at a university that has legal obligations and supposed policy frameworks to protect students from racial harassment. So far, these obligations have gone unfulfilled, and the policy frameworks in place have failed. The Princeton pedagogy seems to prioritize white professors’ interest in racial provocation over the well-being of its Black students. The University’s conduct is indefensible, and my community will not accept this continued indignity. It ends now.
For class on Thursday, Nov. 3, the students in VIS 321 were assigned to read poems from the Black artist Jonah Mixon-Webster — one of which used the n-word. For the first 10 to 15 minutes, the class was filled with long pauses, unsure voices, and timid arguments. Instead of tactfully responding to the class climate and empathetically guiding us through the difficult material, Scanlan decided to exacerbate the situation. About 15 minutes into the discussion, Scanlan posed a question that included a piercing and unmistakable “nigga.” He was not directly quoting the text.
As the word hung in the air, I lobbed a question to make sense of what I had just witnessed: “Are we really having a conversation where you can use that word?”
Scanlan responded that his utterance had ended with an “a” and not an “er.”
I packed up my things and left the classroom.
That night I emailed Butler Dean Rashidah Andrews and Visual Arts Director Jeff Whetstone, still managing nausea from the day’s events.
This is the part where I describe what it felt like to hear the n-word. Did I freeze? Did I fume? How did my body feel? You’re not getting that — and there’s a reason.
I cannot and never will attempt to describe the feeling that word elicits. I am aware that there is always a thirst for this part of the narrative: probing for the extent of the wound of the word, appraising how large it is, how deep it is, how long it takes to heal, asking “does it really hurt if I press down hard on it?” But white people already know how deep that word cuts. As James Baldwin and others have rightfully pointed out, white people created the construct of the nigga in the first place. They know how it operates. They know the violence it holds, and that is the very reason why some of them use it.
Feigning ignorance, white academics often still use a disingenuous interest in the nature of the slur’s impact to justify their racist antics. This was certainly true for Lawrence Rosen, a Princeton anthropology professor, who used the word “nigger” in his 2018 class. Rosen allegedly justified his use of the word, saying the slur was worthy of analysis given its “gut punch.” University President Christopher L. Eisgruber ’83 endorsed Rosen’s racist pedagogy, which puts Black students in harm’s way for the “intellectual” pursuits of white professors, stating, “I respect Professor Rosen’s decision about how to teach the subject in the way that he did by being explicit in using very difficult words, and they are very difficult words.”
I will not explain how it felt to have that word and its venom unleashed on me and my Black classmates. That act serves to validate the very experiment that Scanlan and Rosen want to pass off as academic but is, in fact, just cruel.
On Sunday morning, three days after our seminar, Scanlan sent our class an apology, via Canvas, which demonstrated his continued misunderstanding about the nature of his conduct. He “profoundly apologized” for the way in which he went about making his “intellectual” point — never ceding ground that the point was indeed of academic value.
I appreciate Scanlan’s acknowledgment of the way, as he noted in his apology, he had “harmed” his students. However, I find his sensitivity to that harm, only in the wake of the incident, insufficient and ultimately insincere. It is hard to believe that it was this classroom discussion, after 60 years of life, that first educated him on the pain felt by Black people when white people utter the n-word. And if it indeed was my reaction and that of my Black peers that first educated Scanlan about the word’s harm, we are not lab rats for such a learning opportunity. Professors at the University are here to teach, not to harm. Although apology and reflection are welcome, it does not change the harassment that we faced as students, nor the University’s obligations to protect us in the wake of such behavior.
Scanlan’s demeanor during the incident and his history prior to it contextualizes the class discussion as a perverse and likely intentional provocation — one that amounts to harassment.
Joe Scanlan has risen to the prominence he now enjoys as a result of his racially offensive performances. Blackface, “conceptual” or otherwise, has been at the center of his “art practice.” This latest performance created what I believe reaches the University’s standard for harassment: “intimidating, hostile, or offensive environment … regardless of intent” — harassment that the University is obligated to investigate and act upon.
Is the University going to enforce this provision? And, at this point, what excuse exactly can the University rely on to avoid disciplinary action? A white professor used the word “nigga,” and every detail of the case makes it worse: his flippant body language, his unwillingness to drop the subject upon clear student distress, and his history of deeply offensive behavior. If this situation does not meet the standard for harassment, then what behavior is deemed egregious enough for the University to take action?
I strongly advocate for free speech. My father grew up under the Barre regime in Somalia, and I was raised with a strong appreciation for the right to speak freely. But free speech does not mean we should tolerate harassment, and it should not stop us from insisting upon consequences for reckless and harmful speech. University policy seems to agree. The policy draws a clear distinction between protected speech and racial harassment, but the investigation process lacks the rigor to appropriately differentiate between the two. If the University had conducted a more thorough investigation, I sincerely believe it would be considered racial harassment. But, according to Princeton, it isn’t.
On Friday, Nov. 4, the day after the incident in VIS 321, I was contacted via email by Cheri Burgess, Director of Institutional Equity and Equal Opportunity Employment, asking to meet. We met for only 25 minutes, which allowed for me to give a brief overview of the incident without time to provide the contextual details that are at the heart of distinguishing between protected speech and harassment. I didn’t even feel the need to say that there should be a follow-up meeting. I was sure that Burgess and her office would contact me on Monday to learn more. That was naive.
On Monday evening, I received an email from the Provost’s Office, informing me that the “vice provost has conducted an initial assessment of the information provided and has determined that, given the academic context in which the word was used, it does not implicate the Policy on Discrimination and/or Harassment.” The letter went on to state that “the dismissal of a complaint during the initial assessment is not subject to appeal.”
I was and remain floored by a process so swift and so scant. It is difficult to believe that such an investigation meets the University’s obligations to any of the parties involved.
This Tuesday, after I sought legal counsel and filed my complaint again, this time through an online portal, Burgess made herself available for another meeting if I had any “substantive information” that “could potentially change the outcome of the initial assessment.” It took hours of self-study on civil rights law and University policy just to formulate my online complaint and try to get the University to reconsider.
The University has failed me and my fellow students. They failed us with their hiring practices that let someone with Joe Scanlan’s history into our classroom. They failed us when the initial assessment of the incident was rendered without enough time or care to deliver a just and reasonable verdict. They failed us in their obligation to provide a learning environment that is not hostile and offensive. And they continue to fail our entire community until students’ concerns about this incident are heard and the process responsible for adjudicating complaints like this is reformed. As long as the University continues to defend the abuse of students as “academic rigor,” none of us are safe.
I call on the Office of the Provost to launch a thorough investigation into the incident, one that meets their obligations to pursue a “reasonable” inquiry into the events last Thursday. I am calling on the Visual Arts Program to cancel VIS 321 and repudiate the idea that there’s anything academic to be gained from this type of harassment. Additionally, the University needs to ensure that students who have worked for eight weeks are able to receive credit and a grade without any further instruction from Scanlan. Finally, I am calling for a formal and public apology from the University for the indignity of this incident and the institution’s role in exacerbating the harm through its negligent response.
This institution needs to restore its moral compass. You shouldn’t be able to harass students and keep your job. Except at Princeton where — for now — you can.
Editor’s Note: In the process of publishing this piece, the 'Prince' took several steps to ensure the veracity of the claims including confirming with other students and reviewing emails and documents relevant to Farah's interaction with the University.
Omar Farah is a senior from Alberta, Canada concentrating in Religion. They are a Managing Editor for the 146th Board of The Daily Princetonian; this guest contribution reflects their views alone.