An award-winning communications professor has been placed on leave after students accused him of harming their mental health — for using a Chinese expression that sounds similar to the N-word, according to reports.
Professor Greg Patton was giving a virtual Zoom class to his students at the University of Southern California discussing how different cultures use filler words instead of “ums and errs” to take pauses while talking.
He noted how in China people tend to say “nèi ge,” the word for “that,” which he pronounced as “Neh-ga,” video of the class shows.
“In China, the common word is ‘that” — that, that, that,” he said. “So in China it might be ‘nèi ge’ — ‘nèi ge, nèi ge, nèi ge,” he said.
The lecture sparked a huge backlash from students, some of whom accused him of deliberately pronouncing it to sound like the N-word — and leading to an apology from the university as it announced Patton had been suspended from the class, the university’s student paper said.
A coalition of students wrote to college officials saying that Patton “offended all of the Black members of our Class,” according to an email obtained by the National Review.
“Our mental health has been affected,” the group complained. “It is an uneasy feeling allowing him to have the power over our grades.
“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,” they reportedly wrote.
“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 group wrote.
A rep for the university’s Marshall School of Business told the student paper that Patton was taking “a short term pause” and another professor taking over his course.
Dean Geoff Garrett also apologized for the professor’s use of a “Chinese word that sounds very similar to a vile racial slur in English” that “caused great pain and upset among students.”
“I am deeply saddened by this disturbing episode that has caused such anguish and trauma,” he wrote in an email to students, according to the National Review report.
Garrett also confirmed in an email obtained by the student paper, USC Annenberg Media, that Patton would no longer be teaching this semester.
“It is simply unacceptable for faculty to use words in class that can marginalize, hurt and harm the psychological safety of our students,” he wrote.
The school’s alumni, however, expressed support — saying Patton used “an accurate rendition of a common Chinese” word, which was “an entirely appropriate and quite effective illustration of the use of pauses.”
Patton also insisted there was no “ill intent,” saying in an email to students that he “did not connect this in the moment to any English words and certainly not any racial slur.”
However, he conceded, “I failed to realize all the many different additional ways that a particular example may be heard across audience members based on their own lived experiences and that it is my fault.”
Patton has been teaching at USC Marshall for more than 20 years, according to his LinkedIn profile. He is a member of USC US-China Institute, and has taught several courses at Jiao Tong University in Shanghai.
When reached by email, Patton told the university paper that he did not wish to comment.
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