The Fight Against Words That Sound Like, but Are Not, Slurs

Colleges are torn apart when faculty are punished and publicly vilified for accidentally giving offense.

An illustration of a microphone with red scribbles next to it
Getty / The Atlantic

When the news began circulating on social media, many couldn’t believe it was true––that the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California would remove a longtime professor from a class because a Mandarin word he used correctly in a lesson sounded sort of like a racial slur. One skeptic warned that the “ridiculous sounding story” seemed like a “fabricated Reddit meme.” Another was suspicious that it so neatly fit a narrative of “wacky campus leftists repressing free speech.”

Then angry faculty and alumni began confirming the story: During a Zoom class on August 20, Greg Patton, a 53-year-old professor, told students that in business settings they should avoid filler words such as um or er. Then he gave another example of a filler word that—I learned—he added to his lecture perhaps five years ago to be more inclusive of international students. “Like in China, the common word is thatthat, that, that, that,” he explained. “So in China it might be nèi genèi ge, nèi ge, nèi ge. So there’s different words that you’ll hear in different countries.”

To some students, the Mandarin word, rendered 那个, sounded too much like the N-word for their liking. They sent a letter of complaint to administrators and pressed their grievance in a meeting. Soon after, Patton was removed from the class, investigated, and excoriated in a mass email. “Professor Greg Patton repeated several times a Chinese word that sounds very similar to a vile racial slur,” Geoffrey Garrett, the Marshall School’s dean, wrote. “Understandably, this caused great pain and upset among students, and for that I am deeply sorry. It is simply unacceptable for faculty to use words in class that can marginalize, hurt and harm the psychological safety of our students.”

The dean’s actions triggered an avalanche of criticism. A petition to reinstate Patton accumulated more than 20,000 signatures. CNN reported reactions of disbelief and ridicule in the Chinese-language media, diminishing USC’s image as a Pacific Rim university that values academic freedom. Ninety-four recent graduates of the MBA program, purporting to represent “more than a dozen nationalities and ethnicities,” wrote that “a few of us, but many of our parents, lived through mainland China’s Cultural Revolution. This current incident, and Marshall’s response so far, seem disturbingly similar to prevalent behavior in China at that time—spurious accusations against innocent people, which escalated into institutional insanity.”

Scores of USC business faculty felt undermined by their dean––and many would only express their concern anonymously for fear of retaliation from students or administrators. “This situation has rocked the business school,” one faculty member told me. “Patton was thrown to the wolves, his reputation damaged, and his livelihood threatened. The dean’s letter … caused immeasurable damage.”

On Instagram, a Black member of USC’s class of 2024 wrote that Patton is a “scapegoat” being used by USC administrators “as a performative way to show they’re progressive,” adding, “Every other black USC student I talked to wasn’t even offended … I’ve already seen people reference this situation and say we blow everything out of proportion when the majority of us never took issue with this situation.” On the letters page of the Los Angeles Times, various YouTube channels, and Twitter, multiple Black commentators agreed that Patton was being treated unjustly. “Use of the filler phrases is CRITICAL for fluid Chinese conversation,” Vic Marsh, a Black speaker of Mandarin, commented. “Take a deep breath, USC, and give the linguist back pay. We need everyone to stop doing silly things in the name of Black people.”

Even The Daily Show weighed in. “As people, we’ve got to remember that there are so many things that are actually designed to offend us, they’re intended to offend us, that we’ve got to try to make sure that we don’t get offended by things that aren’t made to offend us,” the host, Trevor Noah, concluded.

“Exactly,” the comedian Ronny Chieng replied. “Because otherwise there is no limit to what can upset you!”

This controversy is most significant, however, as a bellwether of how administrators respond when young people take offense beyond reasonable limits. To mollify some of its business students, USC was willing to undermine a professor in good standing. Academics elsewhere are watching. They see the majority of faculty, alumni, and outside observers saying, “This goes too far,” and the bureaucracy holding firm. So far, USC administrators have not admitted error. They have not apologized to Patton or reinstated him to his classes. And they have left business faculty so fearful and insecure that some are self-censoring to protect their positions.

As one professor put it, the treatment of Patton is “farcical,” but part of a larger trend: “Fundamental values––freedom of speech, intellectual freedom, equality––have largely fallen out of fashion in most elite universities, including USC. This has created a climate of terror among faculty.” Anyone invested in higher education would profit from studying exactly what went wrong.

In past years, when new MBA students gathered in physical spaces, Patton’s example was taught without controversy. But the class of 2022 convened for their first week of business school over Zoom. In that format, Patton could not assess body language or mood. And students couldn’t linger after class to air a concern. Both factors may have played a part in what followed. When Patton learned that some students were upset, “my heart dropped, and I have felt terrible ever since,” he later wrote in a letter to the business school’s Graduate Student Association. “I have tried so hard to deeply support every student at Marshall and to make them feel welcome and valued and seen.” He apologized to the whole class the next morning.

But the offended students did not talk with Patton or let the matter drop. In today’s campus culture, the sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning have observed, “complaint to third parties has supplanted both toleration and negotiation. People increasingly demand help from others, and advertise their oppression as evidence that they deserve respect and assistance.”

In their letter to Patton’s bosses, the students began by critiquing his pronunciation. “A couple of us reached out to our Chinese classmates as we were appalled by what we had just heard. It was confirmed that the pronunciation of this word is much different than what Patton described,” they wrote. “The word is most commonly used with a pause in between both syllables.” (In fact, numerous experts affirmed that Patton’s pronunciation was correct.)

“In addition,” the students continued, “we have lived abroad in China and have taken Chinese language courses at several colleges and this phrase, clearly and precisely before instruction is always identified as a phonetic homonym and a racial derogatory term, and should be carefully used, especially in the context of speaking Chinese within the social context of the United States.” (That passage upset some Chinese students and many outside observers, who pointed out that the social context of the U.S. is a land of immigrants where Chinese has been spoken for centuries and where non-English speakers shouldn’t have to self-censor their native languages. A Chinese American USC business student emailed me, “I couldn’t help but feel angry that the language that I first spoke is almost being demonized because the language contains an extremely common phrase that sounds remotely similar to something in English.”)

The grievance letter went on, “To repeatedly use the word in each session and conveniently stop the Zoom recording right before saying the word, then resume the Zoom recording afterwards is puzzling to us, and makes it appear that his actions were calculated. In other words, he was aware of the grave and inappropriate nature of the example and purposefully chose to leave it out of his Zoom recording for the session.” (When a video recording of the controversial example from one of the classes was posted online, that allegation was proved factually wrong.)

The offended students next characterized the “burden” and harms that they purported to suffer. “Our mental health has been affected,” they wrote. “We would rather not take his course than to endure the emotional exhaustion of carrying on with an instructor that disregards cultural diversity and sensitivities and by extension creates an unwelcome environment for us Black students.” His “careless comment” affected their ability to focus on their studies, they claimed, “and to expect that we will sit through two more weeks of this class, knowing that the professor lacks the tact, racial awareness and empathy to lead and teach an audience as diverse as ours is unacceptable. We should not be made to feel ignored and belittled.”

Near the end, their letter invoked the names of two Black people recently killed by police officers, stating, “We are burdened to fight with our existence in society, in the workplace, and in America. We should not be made to fight for our sense of peace and mental well-being at Marshall … In light of the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the recent and continued collective protests and social awakening across the nation, we cannot let this stand.”

The message to administrators was clear: Take action or else.

Perhaps no one at USC’s business school is better qualified to analyze these events than Peter Kim, who studies social perception and misperception and the violation and repair of trust. His research sheds light on a question posed by many observers: Patton apologized. Why wasn’t that enough? Kim said apologies can be effective in the case of a perceived failure of competence. But if a transgression is seen as intentional, “an apology can be quite harmful,” Kim explained. Students attributed ill intent to Patton, claiming that he strategically stopped his Zoom recording in his classes. So rather than find his apology appropriate, they saw it “as confirmation of their belief that he’s done wrong and he’s got character flaws.”

Kim has also found that people are more likely to attribute ill intent when the actor is in a position of power, “because we believe the powerful have more control over their actions,” and that when people assess an ostensible transgression in a group, they tend to persuade one another that the act and the intent are worse than they would have concluded on their own. What’s more, when someone seen as powerful expresses remorse for what happened, “we consider that expression less authentic … because we believe the powerful have greater control over their emotions and are more likely to use them strategically.”

Kim wondered if the students simply made an honest mistake in attributing ill intent. “My hope is that it was just a mistake. You know, mistakes can happen. But it’s unclear,” he said, to what extent they were trying to “frame the situation” to “have maximal influence on this person’s career.” I sought to interview the students who took issue with Patton’s language to find out more about their views but was unable to identify them. I also emailed the school’s Center for Black Cultural and Student Affairs and its Black Student Assembly soliciting comment from anyone inclined.

Most faculty members I spoke with did not begrudge the offended students their initial reaction. “It’s tense times for some people right now,” a longtime faculty member told me. “There’s nothing wrong with having an impulsive reaction. So I don’t blame them for bringing this issue up.” But that professor believes USC’s response could hurt other students as well as professors, who will wonder, he said, “‘Well, if I say something that some group doesn’t like and they write a letter to the dean, will I get kicked out of class? Will the dean write a public letter vilifying me?’”

Administrators had better options. UCLA’s Eugene Volokh drafted the reply that he thinks USC should have sent students.

This should go without saying, but of course many languages have words that sound vaguely like English epithets or vulgarities, and vice versa … Naturally, USC students are expected to understand this, and recognize that such accidents of pronunciation have nothing to do with any actually insulting or offensive meaning. To the extent that our first reaction to hearing such a word might be shock or upset, part of language education (or education of any sort) is to learn to set that aside. The world’s nearly one billion Mandarin speakers have no obligation to organize their speech to avoid random similarities with English words, and neither do our faculty (or students or anyone else) when they are speaking Mandarin.

Volokh argued that students who aspire to shape a diverse world must get over parochial impulses to censure what offends them, and that a university should encourage their maturation. “I am deeply saddened that some students were disturbed by the episode, because such disturbance reflects a failure of our educational system,” the imagined letter concluded. “I resolve that we at USC will teach our students the principles and tools that will keep them from falling into this sort of reaction. Please know that Prof. Patton and I along with the entire Full-Time MBA Program team are here to support each of you, by educating you on these principles.”

I ran Volokh’s proposed response by numerous USC professors. Many preferred or endorsed the approach, which some considered more respectful of Black students than the letter Garrett sent because it treated them as adults capable of mastering their emotions rather than as fragile victims. But Ruben A. Davila, an expert on financial accounting who has taught at USC since 1986, objected to Volokh’s response. “He does not understand our community,” he told me via email. “At best his response is insensitive and at worse divisive,” because an important part of the USC community was offended, and nothing in Volokh’s message “acknowledges the pain and damage caused” or says, “‘what you say is important, you are a valued member of our community.’”

In Davila’s telling, “there are two competing principles here: academic freedom versus diversity and inclusion. In this particular circumstance, there is no academic principle at stake important enough to suppress the importance of diversity and inclusion. I am confident there are multiple less offensive examples” that would easily achieve the same learning objective “without offending or causing pain.” He conceded that “thinking about what I say before I say it makes talking freely and thus teaching a bit more difficult,” but, he argued, “I think it might be worth it. Our students deserve at least that much.”

In short, one faction in this debate believes that educational institutions owe it to students to validate their lived experiences of psychological harms; another believes that students are owed tools to build resilience. I personally believe that Volokh’s approach serves students better. In this case, he noted in an email to me that when students “feel pain and experience ‘damage’ because of an accidental similarity of sound, that reflects a way of thinking and reacting that’s unsound, and in the long-term (and even the medium-term) extremely counterproductive for those students. It’s an understandable human reaction, but something students need to learn to avoid––or else if they land around Mandarin speakers, they are going to be in constant pain and feel their work environment constantly damaged when they hear the word.”

But Davila’s approach has its place too. If academic freedom means anything, both the USC professors who believe the Davila approach better serves students and the professors who believe that the Volokh approach better serves students must be at liberty to teach accordingly.

The fact that USC administrators sided with the aggrieved students is a departure from recent history and a marker of changing times. In the 1990s, using the N-word as a slur was utterly verboten; using words that merely sound like the N-word did sometimes result in pushback, but this was mostly perceived as political correctness run amok. In 1999, when a University of Wisconsin student complained to the faculty senate that her professor had used the word niggardly in a discussion of Chaucer, her grievance was dismissed as self-evidently ridiculous. That same year, when an aide to the mayor of Washington, D.C., was forced to resign for calling a city budget proposal “niggardly,” upsetting a Black colleague who misinterpreted the word as a racial slur, Salon characterized the matter as an absurdity that “opinion-makers right, left and center could universally agree on.” Julian Bond, then the head of the NAACP, told the Associated Press, “You hate to think you have to censor your language to meet other people’s lack of understanding.” Due to “a hair-trigger sensibility,” he added, “both real and imagined slights are catapulted to the front burner … and even innocent parties can find themselves victims.”

Many privileged young people have been acculturated differently. A full-time MBA student in the class of 2020 emailed me, requesting anonymity due to the sensitivity of the controversy at the institution, “Can you expect a student to focus or feel safe after hearing a word that sounds like a racial slur? To tell my black classmates that they shouldn’t be offended by something is objectively wrong … My place is to support them. As an American society, we don’t need to use the British slang term for a cigarette anymore because it sounds like a homophobic slur. We can say ‘stingy’ or ‘begrudging’ instead of that word that sounds like a racial slur. We don’t say a certain onomatopoeia around Asian people because one word is also a racial slur. Just don’t say words that sound like racial slurs—it isn’t that complicated.”

But many lecturers would indeed find it complicated to self-police for any word that merely sounds like a slur. Insofar as students associate a no-homophones standard with respectful treatment, and departures from it as bigotry or a lack of “cultural competence,” many more instances of needless aggrievement will occur than under a standard where only pejorative uses of actual slurs are taboo. In that way, a push for hypersensitivity would actually increase the burden that students feel.

While searching for a way forward, some faculty have urged a community dialogue at Marshall. “Our community has voiced a diversity of views in this incident; I see each of these views, on the effect of hearing a racial slur, insensitivity toward a language, encroachment of free speech, as emanating from some inherent truths,” Ramandeep Randhawa, a professor of data sciences and operations, emailed me. “I believe a diversity of viewpoints is integral to the strength of an intellectual community.” Susan Harmeling, an expert in business ethics, a co-founder of the Equity Project, and a professor at Marshall, commented that “the only way out of difficult situations like this one is through dialogue and understanding. There are no shortcuts; only dialogue and understanding will work. The alternative is further suffering and pain for everyone involved.”

But is honest, open dialogue at USC possible? Last Monday, the faculty council at the business school discussed the results of an anonymous survey on the Patton incident that 105 faculty members answered. According to a transcript I obtained, a member of the council described “an overwhelming sense of vulnerability, worry, insecurity, fear and anxiety” among faculty who worry that they could be “cancelled” anytime due to a misunderstanding. The faculty feel “anger, disappointment, betrayal, and outrage” at Patton’s treatment. They support “efforts to bring greater diversity and inclusion into our classrooms,” but “a large proportion” of faculty members mentioned that “given the atmosphere of fear and perceived lack of support, they think it is too risky for them to continue discussing certain topics with students. This includes topics related to diversity and inclusion, but it also includes such topics as politics and international relations.”

Teachers are already altering their lessons to guard against hypothetical affronts to the most easily offended. Business-school administrators ought to treat that chilling effect, which threatens the education of all MBA students, as a more urgent problem than the passing utterance of a Mandarin word.

“Diversity, equity, and inclusion mean nothing,” Davila told me, “if we do not acknowledge all members of the community, provide them a voice, allow the voice to be heard, and let all members of community know they are valued.” I agree. However, many business-school faculty feel that while the institution’s bureaucracy purports to act in the name of diversity and inclusion, it fuels self-censoring and excludes many.

If this problem were confined to USC, it wouldn’t be much of an issue. But administrators all over the country are bending over backward to appease umbrage-taking students in the name of inclusion, and more than a few academics have found themselves under serious investigation for flimsy reasons. “Academics write to me with great frequency to share their anxieties,” my colleague John McWhorter, a Columbia professor, wrote earlier this month. “In a three-week period early this summer, I counted some 150 of these messages. And what they reveal is a very rational culture of fear among those who dissent, even slightly, with the tenets of the woke left.”

When universities invoke “diversity, equity, and inclusion” to justify an action, the effect should never be to suppress widely held views. When well-meaning staff are punished for dissenting from left orthodoxy, let alone for wholly imaginary slights, the whole academic project is at risk.