Emory Law Professor’s Use of the “n-word” Shows Something Deeper

Recently, a professor at Emory Law School was accused of using the n-word during class while discussing a case.  The school did not fire the professor, but they did order-in some Starbucks-type unconscious bias training.  Pressure by students on this issue forced the school to deal with a deeper issue that using the n-word makes obvious.

People don’t slip up and accidentally use the n-word.  People use the n-word in public because they have used the n-word in the past.  Even people who use it with a disclaimer such as, “I hate to even say this, but he was acting like such a [n-word]” are as guilty as the people who hurl the ugly word at every black person they see.  It is just like the people who say “I hate to interrupt” while interrupting anyway.  Those people may hate to interrupt but they did it anyway and interrupted intentionally.  If a professor is comfortable enough to say the n-word in class, I am willing to bet my law school loans it is not his first time.

People who use historically derogatory words fall into two distinct groups.  Either a person is comfortable using the word and uses the word regularly OR a person never uses the words and it takes conscious thought and effort for the word to come up into their brain and come out of their mouth.  Inherent bias training can’t help the former prejudiced group.  However, I believe America has far more of the latter who may benefit from bias training if they are willing to accept that they are need of it.

#MakeAmericaGreatAgain became viewed as the calling card of people who wanted to go back to a time when using the n-word was an acceptable daily occurrence.  I know not all #MAGA lovers uplift the use of the n-word as the main reason to turn back the clock. However, let us acknowledge that this Emory professor is just one of an increasing number of incidents where people are caught on camera using the slur openly since Trump’s election.  Those who think #MAGA simply means returning to a safer, kinder, gentler America, be warned that you are paddling in the same boat as the people who see #MAGA as code for the not too distant past when derogatory use of the n-word was found in school books, newspapers, and on television.

Emory Law Interim Dean, James B. Hughes Jr. wrote in a response to the incident, “We can – and will – do better.”  Then the dean made a decision that no student for the next two years will be required to take that professor’s class.  Law school is only three years long – so basically the school said they will just wait out the students who felt offended and then start fresh and pretend nothing happened.  That is not doing better.  In fact, that is what America keeps doing. Lets all just pretend it did not happen, let time pass, and we will all get over it.  Getting over the n-word will never happen until some Americans address their biases that make them feel they have the authority to use that word in the first place.[i]

The professor also wrote a long winded lawyerly response. Look — either you use the word or you don’t.  If you don’t use that word, have never used that word, and there is no chance on earth that the word would have come out of your mouth then say so.  There is an equally ugly s-word used to offend the Hispanic community.[ii]  If someone accused me of using that word – I would be able to say unequivocally they did not hear that word come out of my mouth.  I certainly wouldn’t say, “maybe I said spit and you misunderstood me.”  Nah.  Nope.  Not possible.  At home, I curse like a sailor.  But I have never in all my years said a curse word in court even if it was a part of the evidence I was presenting.

If he used the n-word in his role as a professor, I have reason to believe he has used the word privately or in his past. That likelihood increases the chances he has an inherent bias against [n-words] that even he may not be aware of.  There is a bigger chance he is aware of the causes of his biases, but like his letter, has explained it away with a litany of excuses. Although I understand the need of the professor to explain his side of the story, it still sounds like he feels there was a legitimate excuse to ever use that word in a university setting.  To clear up any confusion, if the term is relevant to the discussion you can use the term “n-word” and we all know exactly what you mean. Thank you!

The rule here is that because of America’s history – there are things that are now and will forever be unacceptable under all circumstances.  No further debate, explanation, and reasoning should be needed after the period of that sentence.  In 2018, we should not accept excuses from anyone who violates that rule.  We must all acknowledge that people who still choose to use that term are holding our country back.

The professor ended his explanation by saying “I feel compelled to make this clear to combat any narrative that would make assumptions that I am a racist or white supremacist or inhospitable towards racial minorities.”  Well professor you can be very hospitable towards minorities in your class, “good morning Mrs. Jones.” It is very possible that you are not a white supremacist with the silly desire to form a white ethnostate.  You can also not be a racist because you have not used a position of power to prohibit minority participation.  But that does not resolve the deeper issue of your inner thoughts and biases against minorities that slipped out so casually during your class discussion. In 2018 America, if you have ever yelled the word in anger at the guy who cut you off, or thought it while watching television about the black person accused of a heinous crime, or even sat tacitly by while a white counterpart casually used the word … then I feel compelled to make this clear to you … there is something deeper about yourself you must address.


…then I feel compelled to make this clear to you … there is something deeper about yourself you must address. 

It is the same something deeper that is allowing division to continue in America.  That something deeper that allows some white southerners to continue this “heritage not hate” lie.  The type of people who say quietly, “I would never wave the confederate flag, but I have family who do so I understand.”  It is the same something deeper that let Trump get elected despite the fact we heard him use the p-word ON TAPE.  “Grab them by the [p-word].” No one can address that something deeper for you, except for you.

The reason why the very easy to understand prohibited word concept was lost on a longtime law professor is because of that deep down something that many white Americans refuse to address.  It is no more your fault that you had a relative who slandered blacks around the thanksgiving table than it is my fault that some men in my community have horrible things to say about gay men.  It IS your fault, however, if still in 2018 you refuse to address it.  I can no longer abide by the rule, “well its grandpa just let him say what he wants he is from another time.”  No GRANDPA!  If you are still alive in 2018 know that certain things are no longer tolerated – like marrying a 14-year-old or using the n-word.

I have corrected a number of older men in my community who still think whispered comments about a gay man’s sexuality is appropriate.  I address them with a kind voice but a direct statement, “that is not acceptable anymore and I don’t want you to use that language because it makes us both look bad.”  To people who are not family I’ve taken a statement from a friend on social media, “I don’t know what I’ve done to make you feel I would be comfortable with you saying something like that around me, but I don’t condone that language and I find it despicable.”  Then you hold a long “momma glare” to express how serious you are.[iii]

You can’t tell people how to live their life or truly control what they say.  But if more of us stand up and correct people we will shape America into what we want it to be.  Not “great again,” just GREAT!  In the same way social media has ruined the businesses of people who have used slurs in public, we in our individual lives must do the same and shame people out of using words that divide us.  Yet, if like this professor, you have excuse after excuse then you are not digging deep enough to address your inherent bias and you are one of the reasons America hasn’t reached the appropriate level of greatness.

Like the Emory law students, American’s should not be opposed to asking people to take a sabbatical until they address their deep-seated issues. People with ingrained biases should not be teaching law to any student, holding a public office, or making decisions that could impact others.



[i] We know there will always be neo-nazi’s who use the word – but they don’t count.  No one listens to those guys except themselves.    

[ii] If you don’t know what word I am referring to, then good for you.  You were raised well!

[iii] A momma glare is that look your mom gave you in church which said, “sit down, shut your mouth, and don’t move a muscle” without her uttering one word.


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