Revisiting the Verushka Lieutenant-Duval Affair: The N-word, Academic Sins, and Militant Eradicationists

November 2023

Should white professors say the N-word in class? The question has split university campuses into two competing factions: accommodationists versus eradicationists. Accommodationists oppose restrictions placed on their choice of words, works, or ideas. This includes vocabulary that students, faculty, and administrators find objectionable. In contrast, eradicationists believe that professors have a moral obligation to avoid saying racial epithets, especially those which Black people find dehumanizing.

In October 2020, accommodationists and eradicationists clashed head-on when a controversy erupted at the University of Ottawa. Professor Verushka Lieutenant-Duval, who is white, was teaching an art and gender class when she pointed out how persecuted minorities reappropriate derogatory terms to liberate themselves from their oppressors. Trouble began when she highlighted the Black community’s usage of the N-word without employing the euphemism. She was initially suspended from her course but was later reinstated.

In situations like these, eradicationists believe that the principle of dignity takes precedence over academic freedom and attempt to persuade others in this regard. But the more militant eradicationists (MEs) use different tactics. They brand white professors as racists and want them disciplined. MEs, however, cannot assume the moral high ground without committing several academic sins.

The first involves the negation of context. Recall that Professor Lieutenant-Duval was teaching her class about subversive resignification, a process by which the N-word is “emptied of its initial meaning and resignified as a powerful marker of identity.” Any ally of anti-racism would have welcomed this dialogue with open arms, but because Professor Lieutenant-Duval did not adhere to social propriety, she was considered a racist by four professors from the School of Sociological and Anthropological Studies. Jumping on the white supremacist bandwagon, one University of Ottawa historian referred to the Lieutenant-Duval episode as “a punctuated moment in … a long history of racism.” The racist tag is an obvious—and I would argue a deliberate—mischaracterization of the circumstances, but ideologues are not exactly known for arguing in good faith.

One reason why MEs ignored Professor Lieutenant-Duval’s motives had to do with her lack of melanin. Had she been Black, her pedagogical approach would have been vital to the conversation. Had her background been biracial or multiracial, MEs would have been hard-pressed to articulate what word crime she committed. Therein lies the irony of invoking racial privilege. Even though the concept of separate races is a lie, MEs want specific aspects of academic freedom divided along racial lines. Context is problematic in that it hinders compliance with this political objective, so MEs minimize its importance or dismiss it altogether. What matters more to them is whether a professor’s expression aligns with her skin tone.

The next academic sin concerns the erasure of valid moral distinctions, specifically between use and mention. Accommodationists believe that directing a racial slur at someone is rightly denounced, but mentioning one for the purposes of study is permissible. MEs reject this argument outright. A key anti-racist belief—whites can no longer say that word—would be challenged by opening the door to nuanced ethical judgments.

The issue becomes complicated whenever prominent Black scholars uphold the mention exception, even for white professors. According to Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy, students are expected to be mature enough to distinguish between educators who use the N-word to demean Black individuals and those who, like Professor Lieutenant-Duval, say it to expose racism. In Kennedy’s opinion, students who cannot appreciate this difference are “unprepared for university life.”

The mention exception cannot be easily dismissed as an anomaly. In fact, courts of law recognize its appropriateness. Kennedy and his colleague, UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh, found that the N-word was quoted in more than 9,500 legal opinions written since 2000 by numerous American jurists. Because academia prepares students for professional careers, Kennedy and Volokh suggest that “any word emerging in court proceedings should be repeatable in a law school classroom.”

MEs have adopted a fallback position: the classroom is not a court of law. Court proceedings have convincing reasons for airing the N-word in full, as part of witness testimony or transcriptions of evidence, whereas white professors have no legitimate grounds for using it. This defence is untenable. Courts could avoid the explicit use of racial slurs, but for the sake of veracity, they do not. Universities should be no less rigorous in their standards.

Moreover, as part of their field training, law students tolerate the mention exception in court, so it would be disingenuous of them to turnaround and condemn white professors who say the N-word during discussions on hate crimes. Put simply, if law students can cope with hearing racial slurs in one setting, they can cope with hearing them in another. MEs have sidestepped the issue by sending a mixed message: the mention exception is viable, just not on university campuses.

Lastly, MEs practise strategic hyperbole. They allege that any mention of the N-word is not merely offensive but genuinely harmful to the health and well-being of minorities. Yet, as University of Toronto philosophy professor Joseph Heath illustrates, the rhetoric of harm is often used to legitimize illiberal methods. If MEs are offended and want a professor sanctioned, this appeal is unlikely to garner sympathy in liberal circles, but as Heath notes, “in order to get other people punished for doing things you don’t like, you have to claim that they have harmed you.” Since academic freedom frustrates attempts at censorship, rhetorical maneuvers are required to weaken its grip. Calling something “harmful” allows MEs to target more effectively those whose words they find abhorrent. It also makes it easier for administrators to justify the suspension or firing of white professors.

This technique is advocated by Elizabeth Stordeur Pryor, associate professor of history at Smith College. In a workshop, she explains how to address racism without harming students. Her ground rules are clear: the N-word must never be spoken in class, only “the N-word.” Still, she admits that students will see the actual slur on her PowerPoints, hear it in films, and read it in the histories she assigns. To summarize: the N-word constitutes violence if expressed verbally, but somehow, the violence is mitigated whenever other modes of communication are chosen. Professor Pryor does not regard her stance as arbitrary or censorious. Instead, she refers to her methodology as a form of inclusion—an “opportunity for everyone to come to the table.” A consistent standard is hard to discern here.

All this raises the question: what good do racial slurs serve? Their expression helps communities to reconcile with the past by honestly addressing the way language operates as an assault on Black freedom, equality, and dignity. One cannot expose anti-Black racism to the fullest degree without acknowledging its linguistic markers. By referencing the N-word in class, white scholars—like their Black counterparts—are replicating authenticity, not vilifying racial minorities. Its inclusion is a constant reminder of the way humans treated others as property. However well-intended, censorship makes racists appear less evil than they really were.

MEs remain unconvinced. Any mention of the N-word by white professors is strictly off limits—at least vocally for the time being. But this demand comes at a price. Although Professor Lieutenant-Duval was incorporating anti-racist pedagogy into her lesson, MEs had no qualms about referring to their colleague as racist or about accepting a contested anecdote as proof of systemic racism. These kinds of visceral reactions demonstrate that the first casualty of a culture war is intellectual integrity.