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The n-word is not your educational tool

<h5>185 Nassau Street, which houses the Visual Arts Program</h5>
<h6>Candace Do / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
185 Nassau Street, which houses the Visual Arts Program
Candace Do / The Daily Princetonian

White professors at Princeton, past and present, including Joe Scanlan and Lawrence Rosen, should know better than to utilize racial slurs in their classrooms as educational tools. 

Recently, controversy arose as Professor Scanlan said the n-word in his class, VIS321: Words as Objects. While Professor Scanlan has defended himself, claiming that he used this language while engaging with a poem, students alleged that he used the n-word in what felt like an attempt to provoke a reaction. Multiple students in the class told The Daily Princetonian that they do not feel comfortable returning to the class. However, the University is taking no action against Scanlan, as administrators said that his use of the word was not in violation of University policy.

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Professors and administrators alike must stop seeing educational value in hate speech such as the n-word. It is not an educational tool for professors to wield, nor does it enhance academic discussion and exploration.

The administration’s handling of this incident aligns with a literal reading of the University’s free speech policy. Rights, Rules, and Responsibilities begins with a discussion of a broader mission: “The central purposes of a university are the pursuit of truth, the discovery of new knowledge through scholarship and research, the teaching and general development of students, and the transmission of knowledge and learning to society at large. Free inquiry and free expression within the academic community are indispensable to the achievement of these goals.”

According to the policy, free speech has some limits: defamation, incitement, fighting words, and threats are not covered under normal protections. In Princeton’s “pursuit of truth,” the institution has historically allowed for language that challenges people, with the basic premise that challenging discussions will allow the best ideas to emerge. But does the use of racist words, like the n-word, really allow for intellectual growth and the pursuit of truth?

The n-word is irrevocably tied to the racism that marks the American past and present. University policy does not cover anything that “constitutes a genuine threat or harassment” or language “that is otherwise directly incompatible with the functioning of the University.” White people’s use of the n-word has irreversibly harmed Black people and communities throughout the course of American history, and continues to have that effect today. Although Scanlan says he did not intend to hurt anyone, that is the consequence of his language. 

There is no good reason for a white professor to use the n-word in the classroom. Time and time again, student experiences have shown that there is no educational or truth-seeking value gained from actively hearing hate speech. Rather, as Omar Farah ’23’s column poignantly captured, white professors’ use of the n-word simply causes pain. It does not inspire novel discoveries. It does not encourage critical thought. It does not help turn students into scholars. Employment of the n-word by a white professor causes harm. There is simply no compelling intellectual reason for the word to be uttered by a white professor. (Farah is a Managing Editor for the ‘Prince.’)

As general practice, we, as an institution, rightfully choose not to censor speech because that power can be easily abused, and because free discourse is valuable in provoking new ideas and discussion. While professors justify their use of the n-word in an academic context by claiming that powerful words must be discussed openly, the use of racial slurs affects marginalized students far more than their white counterparts. We repeatedly see that its use halts a discussion rather than starts one. We do not have to change our policy on censorship to simply recognize that this use of racial slurs is not in service of truth-seeking.

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Signed,

146th Editorial Board

Chair

Rooya Rahin ’23

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Members

Genrietta Churbanova ’24

Mohan Setty-Charity ’24

Abigail Rabieh ’25

Ndeye Thioubou ’25

Lucia Wetherill ’25

Editorial Board members Rohit Narayanan ’24 and Caitlin Limestahl ’23 recused themselves from this editorial due to editorial conflicts of interest.

Managing Editor Omar Farah ’23 has recused themself from all coverage related to this incident.

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