All things being equal, the N-word is just a word. Except things aren’t. The March 31 front-page article “Classroom use of slur ignites fire at Augsburg,” about an Augsburg professor using the word to reference James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time,” misses the mark as entirely as the prof did. It suggests that the professor’s academic freedom is threatened when he is sanctioned after using the slur and asking, “Are there contexts when it’s OK to use the racial slur?”
Nearly 90 percent of college faculty in the U.S. are white, according to a recent National Center for Educational Statistics study, and this white professor’s freedom is of primary concern? He had received the same complaint the year before by “the few black students” in the program, and yet the article, after citing two Carleton professors’ argument that rooting out bias “chills free inquiry,” ends giving him the last word: “It’s not about protecting the student or about protecting academic freedom. It’s both.”
No, it isn’t. The very little space the article gives to one of those few black students, like the strangely vague reference to “the case of a female black English professor at Minneapolis Community and Technical College,” in effect minimizes, even erases, the voices of these black women. That’s what white dominant institutions do: schools, newspapers, magazines — certainly the New Republic, cited in the piece. It privileges white voices over all others. But our white dominant society needs to listen to black, indigenous and women of color. In “Literacy and the Project of Killing the Black Body” (included in the collection “Working Toward Racial Equity in First Year Composition: Six Perspectives,” Routledge, 2019), Taiyon Coleman, a St. Catherine University professor who is black, writes of almost an identical situation 20 years ago when she was a student at Iowa State. Of the damage a white instructor’s use of the N-word has burdened her with she writes, “It has been over twenty years since I had that experience in her classroom, and I am so relieved and grateful that I can finally stop carrying the burden of her hurtful word around.” We should be much more concerned with ending the decades of damage white privilege causes still underrepresented students of color, than continuing to protect usually white male freedoms.
Kathleen Devore, Minneapolis
The writer is an English teacher at Minneapolis Community and Technical College.
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After reading the article about the controversy involving Augsburg Prof. Phillip Adamo, I found that it centers on attitude and approach to the students, not the subject matter.
One of his students stated: “We were made to feel that we owed him something rather than deserving to be there.” That may have been the problem.
As a high school language arts teacher, I taught argumentation and discussion, where we analyzed, wrote about and formed arguments for controversial subjects such as the existence of God, same-sex marriage and the cause of obesity. We also discussed the N-word, which was clearly one of the subjects that garnered the most debate. Before the day of discussion, I would prepare my African-American students by briefly previewing the lesson plan. And I asked all students to vote on whether we should actually say the word or use the euphemism during the discussion. I estimate that we discussed this subject a dozen times or more, with no complaints or student dissension, which may have been due to my rapport with them and approach toward the subject.
Also, Adamo’s “dangerous” question is valid — are there contexts when it’s OK to use the racial slur? Within an academic setting, the answer is yes, as long as students concur. In interracial social settings, it’s different. Even though I heard and used the word my entire life, it was in situations that most whites have never experienced.
Lastly, Groeneveld Kenney’s assertion that “because I am white in America, I am a racist” is utterly absurd. People are not racist simply due to the color of their skin. Racism is a pattern of learned behavior.
Peter K. Redmond, Minneapolis
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In the guise of “goodness,” our society is getting very close to censorship. Does anyone look at intent before becoming offended? I am seriously concerned when a teacher in a class at Augsburg cannot utter a particular word when using it as an example. Words are merely letters put together; intent should be the value.
Kathleen Clarke Anderson, Minneapolis
FORGIVING POOR GRAMMAR
Judge expression on merits, says ‘stickler gone soft.’ Therefore:
I was doing good until I went to lay down and read Michael Nesset’s defense of poor grammar (“Ain’t misbehavin’: Confessions of a grammar stickler gone soft,” March 31). One of the only reasons for good grammar is to create a precise, uniform context for affective communication. And, farther, to reinforce the writers credibility, regardless, if they don’t know basic English its likely he or she may not know the subject matter. Ain’t it so, Miss Sifford.
ROBERT FRANKLIN, Medina
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Bad grammar — misuse of the language — is like playing music out of tune. It isn’t illegal; it isn’t immoral. You won’t go to jail, and you won’t go to hell. Yet, playing music out of tune is wrong.
Andrew Larkin, St. Cloud
THE OIL BUSINESS
Those focused only on profits can be, sadly, cool customers
I found the March 31 interview with Dean Foreman, chief economist for the American Petroleum Institute, deeply, deeply disturbing (“Sunday conversation: Demand for U.S. and Canadian shale oil likely to remain strong”). It was a discussion of profits to be had from production and sale of a known horrifically destructive product in a calm and businesslike tone. Substitute “opium” for “heavy oil,” and we probably have a pretty good recap of the John Company strategy leading to the Opium Wars of mid-19th century China.
A chilling reminder of the nature of “business.”
David Updegraff, Duluth
URBAN LIGHTING AND BIRDS
Hey, it’s no problem that natural selection can’t handle
After reading “Bright lights a trap for region’s migrating birds” (front page, April 4), I spoke with Charles Darwin. He said that those birds with a greater genetic propensity to become disorientated will soon become extinct and those birds with a greater genetic tolerance to light will thrive and eventually dominate in their place. He says not to worry, he’s seen it a million times before.
Adapt or perish.
Jack Kohler, Plymouth