The N-Word that Dare Not Speak Its Name

January 2021

Academic freedom, which protects professors from sanctions when they dissent from prevailing opinion, has been seriously undermined by the authoritarian left. This was confirmed this past October in a controversy concerning a University of Ottawa professor who spoke the N-word in class.

To clarify, Professor Verushka Lieutenant-Duval did not promote racism. She had the audacity to point out that some historically persecuted minorities have reappropriated derogatory terms to liberate themselves from their oppressors.

At first, she offered the example of the word “queer.” Formerly used to denounce homosexuals, it is now employed by the gay community as a badge of honour to signify both identity and difference. Professor Lieutenant-Duval then compared this to the N-word—and not the abbreviated version. Her class was initially suspended but then allowed to resume, amid an outcry by hundreds of CEGEP and university professors who signed a letter in support of their colleague.

In today’s social and political climate, any professor—specifically, any white professor—who utters the N-word in class is automatically depicted as a racist, irrespective of application or intent. Take, for example, the editorial position of The Fulcrum, the University of Ottawa’s student newspaper: “Stop saying the n-word. This should be self-explanatory. Even if it’s in a song. Even if it’s when quoting a movie. Even if it’s in an ‘academic context.’ If you’re not Black, you don’t have the right.”

Some students were appalled with the suggestion that perhaps a conversation was warranted to help resolve the issue. “[Professor Lieutenant-Duval] kind of opened it up as a discussion and made it seem like it’s something that can be debated,” one of them told The Fulcrum, adding, “it’s not a discussion open for anybody.”

Administrators, student union representatives, and a handful of professors at the University of Ottawa condemned Professor Lieutenant-Duval outright. Kevin Kee, dean of the arts faculty, was blunt: “This language was offensive and totally unacceptable in our classrooms and on our campus.” As well, the University of Ottawa Student Union stated categorically that the N-word remains “offensive, hurtful and reprehensible.”

In dissent, four professors within the School of Sociology and Anthropology expressed outrage at “our colleagues’ use of their power and privilege to contribute to the structures of systemic racism.” Unwavering in their stance, they declared, “If one uses the n-word, given its history, one should be aware that, we, among others, will consider them a racist for using it.”

In today’s educational climate, even mentioning the N-word is simply off limits. No campus wants to be perceived as an enabler of systemic racism, even though Professor Lieutenant-Duval was doing just the opposite: explaining how racism operated in the past and how it was challenged by those who experienced it.

In this specific circumstance, there was no attempt to establish a white supremacist narrative. To think otherwise, one would have to have zero understanding of what constitutes an academic argument. However, pluralistic liberals—specifically, those who support restrictions on hateful expressions or grossly offensive remarks—beg to differ. Determined to impose their own set of political causes, these more militant types believe that they—and they alone—should decide what constitutes racism on campus. Anyone who disagrees with their worldview requires diversity training.

Yet, expressing the N-word is appropriate in some scenarios. For instance, Shannon Dea, dean of arts and a professor of philosophy at the University of Regina, asks whether the N-word should be spoken in class. “The answer is yes. Scholars need to be able to say the word in the course of studying it…. For some professors in some contexts, saying the N-word is the right methodological and pedagogical choice.” And that is exactly what Professor Lieutenant-Duval was doing in her Art and Gender class: studying the impact of hate and examining how minorities countered its pernicious effects.

Interesting, however, was the fact that those who publicly denounced Professor Lieutenant-Duval never complained about her use of the word “queer.” According to her detractors, she can articulate terms meant to demean some historically persecuted minorities (i.e., homosexuals) but not others (i.e., blacks). Nothing arbitrary there.

Of course, militant attitudes do not reflect reality outside of the university’s protective cocoon. What about white screenwriters who pen the N-word or the white actor who is urged to speak it? In the movie Django Unchained, which uses slavery as its backdrop, it is spoken 110 times. I seriously doubt that director Quentin Tarantino and Leonardo DiCaprio, who plays a slave owner, are suddenly going to apologize for its repeated usage. It is also important to note that Jamie Foxx and Samuel L. Jackson, both black actors, encouraged the use of the N-word by DiCaprio to make the movie more authentic.

Moreover, the classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird, written by white author Harper Lee, played to a packed auditorium this past February. The N-word was spoken by white actors several times in front of 18,000 public school kids at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Black filmmaker Spike Lee was in attendance, calling the performance a “historic moment.” Lee made no attempt to ban this Broadway production even though he knew in advance that white actors were going to voice the N-word. Perhaps, context does matter.

Lee should know. His critically acclaimed film BlacKkKlansman was filled with racial slurs and disparaging remarks, once again spoken by white actors. So why would Lee participate in such an exercise? He believes that the audience is “always smart enough to know that they [actors] are playing a part, and ‘that’s not them.’ ” In other words, one must represent the past as it truly was. Unfortunately, not everyone is this nuanced.

Academic authorities have already begun to wield their power to police language. The Ottawa-Carleton District School Board recently announced that it is banning the use of the N-word, along with other demeaning terms, in all classroom discussions. A directive issued was explicit:

“The uttering or writing or use of racial or other slurs or epithets by staff (e.g., the n-word, pejorative terms used to describe Indigenous peoples, racial, ethnic, religious, sex, gender, sexual orientation, and/or disability attributes) including when reading aloud texts, quoting or teaching course content, is not permitted and cannot ever serve educational purposes.”

The message “cannot ever serve educational purposes” is strategic: it ensures that a political agenda is prioritized over academic values. Putting an end to all dialogue, the politically correct among us offer ultimatums dressed up in progressive garb.

At first glimpse, pluralistic liberals appear to shine like beacons of tolerance—that is, until someone like Professor Lieutenant-Duval comes along and challenges their self-evident claims. Then they revert to censorship, intimidation, and punishment, all for the sake of safeguarding diversity, of course.