A University of Southern California (USC) professor has come under fire for his apparent use of a racial slur.
Professor Greg Patton, a professor of clinical business communication at the USC Marshall School of Business, was regarded as one of the best teaching faculty and has an extensive experience in communication and leadership effectiveness. In one of his virtual communication courses, he was explaining about the use of filler words in other languages. Patton shared that common filler words in English include “um” and “er”, while in Chinese, the equivalent is “那个” (na-ge or nei-ge, depending on the Mandarin accent), which loosely translates as “that”. However, “nei-ge” also sounds like a racial slur in English.
Response by the Black minorities
In response to Patton’s use of the Chinese word, a letter purportedly signed by “Black MBA candidates c/o 2022” was addressed to USC. The letter shared that Patton conveniently paused his lecture recording while he said “nei-ge” five times, as well as the subsequent queries raised by his students about his choice of using “nei-ge”. The letter alleged that Patton’s pronunciation of “nei-ge” was different from other Mandarin speakers, and has “offended all the Black members” of the class. Patton “agreed to take a short-term pause” from teaching that particular course, and has been reassigned to teach other USC courses.
Response by the Chinese community
In response to Patton’s removal from the course, several USC alumni who claim to be based in China, addressed a letter to USC in defence of Patton. They argued that they recognised Patton’s use of “nei-ge” was an “accurate rendition” of common Chinese use, and felt USC was being receptive towards areas that are “convenient for the moment” (Black Lives Matter). They also called for USC to be open towards cultural diversity, and remarked that it was “vile” to treat ordinary Chinese words as a slur. An online petition was also started to call for Patton to be reinstated.
Meanwhile, videos of the lecture were circulated on Chinese microblogging site Sina Weibo. Most Weibo users believe that Patton was unfairly treated, stressing that the context was not regarding any racial situation or black person and was an example of cultural sensitivity gone wrong. They also felt USC chose “political correctness” over genuine change in promoting understanding across cultural differences. Other users took Patton’s suspension as a move towards suppression of Chinese speech, with some likening the incident to “literary inquisition”.
It is unfortunate that the desire to restate the rights of one minority group have implicated the rights of another minority group. Ultimately, cultural differences and the understanding that no single culture or language is superior to another should be acknowledged and respected.