“USC professor no longer teaching after using Chinese word that sounds like racial slur.” This was the notorious headline that delivered the news that Greg Patton, a professor at USC Marshall School of Business, had been placed on leave after several students in his class complained to the administration of his use of a Chinese word that sounds like the n-word.
It’s no question that the n-word is blatantly racist and dehumanizing. It’s a disgusting reference to the violent, ever-relevant history of slavery and discrimination against Black people in the United States. Therefore, it’s also no question that non-Black people should not say the n-word. So, had Patton said the n-word, it would be grounds for his immediate dismissal from the University.
However, he didn’t say the n-word. He said 那个 (pronounced nà ge or neì ge), which is the Chinese word for “that” and is, as Patton explained in his lecture, commonly used as a filler word similar to and with the frequency that someone might use “like,” “um” or “err” in English.
Essentially, Patton was placed on leave for speaking Chinese. The headline could have just as easily been “USC professor no longer teaching after using Chinese,” and it would have just as accurately summed up the situation. The University’s response to the situation was unacceptable, and Patton should be reinstated promptly.
In Marshall Dean Geoffrey Garrett’s email explaining the situation, he said that, “It is simply unacceptable for faculty to use words in class that can marginalize, hurt and harm the psychological safety of our students.” Because the word in question is 那个 and not the n-word, this implies that the Chinese language in itself is something that “marginalizes, hurts and harms,” which is no doubt offensive to those who speak it.
那个 lacks the racist connotation that makes the n-word unacceptable to use by non-Black people. The Chinese language has existed for thousands of years, and because it is its own language entirely separate from English, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that there are words in it that mean entirely different things than English words. Perhaps Patton would’ve done better with a different communications lecture: homophones versus synonyms. Even if 那个 may sound like the n-word, it shares neither etymological origin nor meaning with it.
In their email to the administration, the students in Patton’s class said that 那个 “should be carefully used, especially in the context of speaking Chinese within the social context of the United States.” If you’re going to be offended by someone saying 那个 in the context of the U.S., you should be pacified when you consider that they were saying 那个 in the context of a communications lecture on filler words.
The Chinese language doesn’t even need to be contextualized in the first place, but if you’re going to attempt to do it anyways, remember that the “social context of the U.S.” is defined by the fact that it’s multicultural and multilingual. Immigrants account for 13.7% of the population, and as of 2015, there were at least 350 languages spoken in the U.S. This country has historically been referred to as the “melting pot” of the globe, priding itself on its acceptance of diverse peoples. Whether it’s really accepting is questionable at best, but that’s a conversation for another time.
USC is no different. While it could certainly do better — especially concerning its appalling underrepresentation of Black students — in the 2019-20 academic year, USC boasted an international student population of 25.4% of the total student population. Many more aren’t only American and speak languages other than English.
Why should Chinese speakers have to tread carefully around speaking their own language because an English speaker might misinterpret it for something it’s not? At this point, it’s starting to sound no different than those Karens who insist that people must speak English in the U.S. That’s pretty rich coming from a country that has no official language.
The world doesn’t revolve around the U.S or the English language. Chinese speakers shouldn’t be forced to erase a word from their language because American English speakers said so. Even if they did, it’s not going to promote racial equity in any way.
Patton’s suspension was purely performative and falls far short of condemning discrimination against Black students. As a member of the Class of 2024 said in a submission to @black_at_usc on Instagram, “It’s ridiculous and genuinely upsetting that, of all the actual racist actions and microaggressions that have been reported, this is conveniently the situation where USC chooses to take action.” In their haste to put up a progressive front, USC responded to the situation in a way that not only marginalized Chinese speakers but also took attention away from incidents of actual offense against Black students.
The administration’s attempt to be anti-racist missed the mark completely. In fact, it really went in circles. Making speaking Chinese punishable goes against the very diversity that USC claims to strive for. It sends the message that the Chinese language and, by extension, Chinese students don’t belong at USC, which is already unfortunately a theme in the U.S. due to the uptick of xenophobia in the wake of the pandemic. We can fight for racial justice for Black people without being racist toward other marginalized communities. God knows, people from underrepresented groups need to work together now more than ever if systemic racism in the U.S. is to be eradicated.