Waikato University professor apologises after using n-word in lecture

A university professor has apologised after saying the n-word during a lecture, as part of a discussion about the reclamation of offensive terms.

The University of Waikato professor was teaching a lecture on representation and reclaiming terms when she said the racial slur out loud.

The teacher says she believed some students might not know what word was being referred to unless it was uttered in full. She later apologised to two students who complained, as well as to the class.

One of the students, who spoke to the Herald, said while she believed the apology to be sincere she was shocked anyone felt comfortable uttering the n-word in 2021, regardless of context.

That student – who is Fijian – had been called the slur many times in her life, but had realised that despite her own skin colour she should not use the term “because I am not ancestrally linked to slavery in the Americas or the Caribbean”.

“It did offend me that she thought it was okay to say it, especially her being a white woman.”

At the mid-April lecture, the teacher gave the class examples of reclaimed terms including slut, queer and nerd, the student says.

She then asked the class for other reclaimed terms, with one student suggesting “the c-word” and another “the n-word”.

“The lecturer then agreed and decided to elaborate on the last term. She said ‘The n-word, I’m just going to say it, n*****’.

“In that moment I felt incredibly uncomfortable.”

The professor explained the word’s meaning and how it was used today within the black community.

The Fijian student and another student complained and the professor apologised to both individually. She also posted an apology to an online student forum.

“I am deeply sorry for any hurt this may have caused. I had not wanted to assume that everyone in the class understood the term and so attempted to provide context but in retrospect, I realise I did this very poorly.

“In trying to get the point across that it absolutely does matter ‘who’ uses ‘reclaimed terms’, I inadvertently deeply offended some. Again, please accept my most sincere apology.”

The student told the Herald she was relieved she wasn’t the only one who had complained, and felt the apology was sincere, though she felt it should have been said to the class in person.

“It baffles me that an academic in the field of arts and culture would think it’s okay to say that without some sort of black-lash.”

Her message to New Zealanders as a whole was simple: “It’s not our word’.

A university spokeswoman said the professor had used the term in a specific learning context.

“She would never use this term outside of such an environment. The term was mentioned once because she wanted to clarify that everyone was aware of which term was being referred to in a class discussion.

“As part of that discussion, [the professor] acknowledged the term is deeply hurtful. It was mentioned in the context of discussing a range of terms that have been used to cause hurt but have been reclaimed by individuals and communities.

“The point she made was that it does in fact matter who uses these terms.”

The professor had spent the past 30 years researching and teaching in the areas of social and cultural geography, focusing on the “challenges and complexities of people, inequalities and injustices”, the spokesperson said.

Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon said the incident could be used as a learning experience.

“As time passes, our understanding of issues and the impact of language evolve and some words arejust not appropriate in today’s world,” he said, “It is important to not normalise the use of words which are derogatory or offensive to others.”

Foon said some language which was casually used among friends and whānau could fit into that category.

But he acknowledged the context in which the incident took place – a university lecture room, where robust debate was encouraged.

Last year, Auckland’s Lynfield College said it would censor racial slurs from teaching materials, after a student filmed a teacher using the n-word while reading a passage from a book.

The school told teachers they should no longer say a word that represented “condensed generations of pain”.

At the time Foon said he believed the n-word should be “deleted” from use.

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