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Chinese alumni compare USC to Mao for removing professor over Chinese word that sounds like n-word

Social media users in China mock black students who complained

The University of Southern California is reeling after removing a business communication professor from the classroom for his pronunciation of a Chinese “filler” word that can sound like “nigger.”

More than 100 of Greg Patton’s former students, most of them Chinese by ethnicity or nationality, accused administrators of “casting insult toward the Chinese language” and compared their action against Patton to Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution in China.

They demanded the punishment of whoever filed the racial discrimination complaint against him in a Sept. 1 letter.

In response, USC leaders claimed they had no beef with Mandarin. Rather, the China expert Patton used a “polarizing example” in his discussion of cross-cultural communication, both Marshall School of Business Dean Geoffrey Garrett and USC Provost Charles Zukoski wrote in separate letters.

He “volunteered” to leave the accelerated three-week course after its first week, the provost added. But the Marshall School Faculty Council claimed that Dean Garrett first approved Patton’s return to the virtual classroom and then pulled him back out the next day, according to an Aug. 30 email obtained by UCLA Law Prof. Eugene Volokh.

USC has launched a formal Office of Equity and Diversity investigation against Patton, the email said.

The dispute apparently turns on regional differences in the pronunciation of “nàge,” which means “that” and is comparable to the English filler word “uh.” A Chinese learning software provider pronounces it “naah-guh,” with a long first syllable and short second.

Patton spoke it four times in quick succession in the video from the class session, pronouncing it “neh-guh,” with both syllables spoken quickly. While a group of black MBA students told administrators that he carelessly left out a syllabic pause – harming their “mental health” – Patton later said his pronunciation is taken from his “years in Shanghai.”

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‘Oddly Anglocentric’ response by USC

A news organization that tracks the Chinese social network Weibo reported that the American controversy puzzled Chinese users.

“On Weibo, netizens had little sympathy for the students feeling offended over the Chinese words. Many called them ‘ignorant’ or ‘uncultured’ for mistaking the Chinese words for a racial slur,” according to What’s on Weibo. Some accused the offended USC students of “discriminating against the Chinese language” or ranking English higher than Chinese for no reason.

UCLA’s Volokh criticized USC leaders for failing to teach students that “they should not be upset by such accidents of language,” and for implying that “Chinese speakers should watch what they say, not just in examples but in ordinary conversation that could be overheard.”

Forcing faculty to avoid certain Mandarin words would be “oddly Anglocentric” and offensive to Mandarin speakers, Volokh wrote in a sample letter that he said Garrett should have written.

Patton’s removal from the classroom will have a “chilling effect” on other USC professors, Katlyn Patton (no relation) of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education told The College Fix in a Tuesday email. They will be “concerned that they, too, could be removed from their courses with little to no due process for using pedagogically relevant examples during class.”

A business school spokesperson told The Fix that the “faculty member agreed to take a short term pause while we are reviewing to better understand the situation and to take any appropriate next steps.” He did not answer Fix questions.

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Unacceptable in light of ‘the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor’

Patton created the Clinical Business Communication course at the Marshall School and is also a faculty member at USC’s US-China Institute. His curriculum vitae lists more than a dozen awards for his teaching, including a 2012 award for teaching and mentoring bestowed by MBA program students.

He is not bilingual through formal instruction but from his personal experience in China, especially Shanghai, Patton told the business school’s Graduate Student Association Executive Board in an Aug. 26 letter obtained by The Fix.

“Given the difference in sounds, accent, context and language, I did not connect this in the moment to any English words and certainly not any racial slur,” he wrote.

The disputed portion of his Aug. 20 virtual lecture featured Patton discussing why it is better to take pauses between ideas, rather than using filler words, when speaking in public. These are “culturally specific,” and in China a person might say “neh-guh neh-guh neh-guh,” he said in rapid succession. (Patton himself has variously spelled the word “nega,” “naaga” and “naga.” The Fix is using a phonetic spelling based on Patton’s video.)

Not long after the lecture, USC administrators received complaints from a group of unnamed students under the umbrella “Black MBA Candidates c/o 2022,” according to an undated email reprinted by Poets and Quants, which covers MBA news. (National Review dates the email as Aug. 21.)

They said Patton used the disputed word “approximately five times” during the same lecture in all three of his classes. “[T]he way he pronounced the word was exactly like the word NIGGA and offended all the Black members of our class.”

The coalition claimed that Chinese students told them that Patton butchered the word. They have also “lived abroad in China and have taken Chinese language courses at several colleges,” where the Chinese word is always discussed warily “within the social context of the United States”:

There are over 10,000 characters in the Chinese written language and to use this phrase, a clear synonym with this derogatory N-Word term, is hurtful and unacceptable to our USC Marshall community.

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Citing “the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor,” the coalition threatened to boycott Patton’s classes rather than “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.”

In another letter obtained by Volokh but not dated, Dean Garrett (left) told the class of 2021 that it was “simply unacceptable for faculty to use words in class that can marginalize, hurt and harm the psychological safety of our students,” including the Mandarin word for “that.” He cited Patton by name.

Garrett implied that preventing use of the word was part of the Marshall School’s plan to “identify and redress bias, microaggressions, inequities and all forms of systemic racism associated with anyone’s identity throughout our school.”

Patton’s Aug. 26 letter to the graduate student group, sent two days after Dean Garrett allegedly removed him again, is exceedingly apologetic, citing the “discomfort and pain that I have caused members of our Community.” It was apparently his third apology at the time.

He said he got the Mandarin “that” example from “several international students several years back.” Patton said he has “since learned there are regional differences, yet I have always heard and pronounced the word as ‘naaga’ rhyming with ‘dega.’”

When a student complained about the word after his third class session, he quickly worked on a “replacement” for the example. He then noticed complaints by three other students “that they were hurt and disturbed by the example,” and apologized to “the entire Program” by email and his class “in person.”

However, Patton also challenged circulating rumors “that suggest ill intent, extensive previous knowledge, inaccurate events[,] and these are factually inaccurate. Fortunate[ly] we have transcripts, audio, video, tracking of messages and a 25 year record” of his teaching.

Nonetheless, “I recognize that I need to get better,” he continued, even thanking the black student coalition for their accusatory letter to the administration: “I strongly support” their effort.

USC professor Greg Patton apologizes for using Chinese word that sounds like n-word by The College Fix on Scribd

‘Every other Black USC student I talked to wasn’t even offended’

Patton has received unusually strong public support for a professor caught in a racially charged speech controversy.

A Change.org petition that calls for Patton to be reinstated has crossed more than 12,000 signatures in less than a week.

“It is not credible that Greg Patton purposefully mispronounced this term as a form of racial discrimination,” reads the petition, created by “CC Chen.” It describes Patton’s removal as “mindless censorship.” (It also has Garrett’s initial email response blaming Patton.)

The Sept. 1 alumni letter to Marshall School and USC leaders was signed by 44 graduates who gave their location as “Shanghai,” backing Patton’s explanation that “neh-guh” was the local pronunciation. Most of the 102 signatories live in China.

“We unanimously recognize Prof Patton’s use of ‘nei ge’ as an accurate rendition of common Chinese use, and an entirely appropriate and quite effective illustration of the use of pauses,” they wrote.

They accused administrators of Marxist-like behavior for removing Patton, comparing it to their parents’ experience in China’s Cultural Revolution: “spurious accusations against innocent people, which escalated into institutional insanity.”

Alumni questioned the motive for the black student coalition complaint, asking why “this year the example suddenly caused deep mental health consequences and mental exhaustion?”

It seems entirely appropriate that the person or persons who brought forth such abusive and dishonest charges should be reprimanded strongly by Marshall not only for the obvious Student Conduct and Integrity violation, but for demeaning the important cause [racial justice] they pretend to stand for.

An Instagram page that publishes anonymous submissions from black students at USC echoed some of the alumni criticisms. The anonymous contributor, “Class of 2024,” accused the administration of virtue signaling by publicly flogging Patton.

“Every other Black USC student I talked to wasn’t even offended” by what the professor said:

It’s ridiculous and genuinely upsetting that, of all the actual racist actions and microaggressions that have been reported, this is conveniently the situation where USC chooses to take action. […] I feel like Dr. Patton is being used as USC’s scapegoat so that they don’t have to address the true issues we’ve been facing.

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Uses Patton’s apology against him

The alumni letter spooked a response from Dean Garrett to the Marshall School community Sunday, saying it was “absolutely not my intention to cast any aspersions on specific Mandarin words or on Mandarin generally.”

But he denied the black student coalition had complained about “the Mandarin language,” rather than the “polarizing example” Patton used to make his point. Garrett highlighted that Patton’s apology said he “could have chosen a better example,” and that USC removed him with his “agreement.”

Provost Zukoski’s Tuesday letter, which appears to be a form response to criticism of USC, says it represents both Garrett and President Carol Folt.

Patton was “not dismissed nor suspended nor was his status changed,” but he is simply under investigation, Zukoski wrote. Like Garrett, he used Patton’s apologies against him to shield USC from criticism.

“There is no intent to impose U.S. cultural norms on communications in other languages and cultures,” he continued. “Indeed, this situation arose when students questioned the polarizing example chosen […] and had nothing to do with the Mandarin language itself.”

The Marshall School spokesperson did not answer Fix questions about why it was investigating the relevant use of a Chinese word, the reasoning for asking Patton to take a “short term pause,” and why faculty shouldn’t worry that they could be similarly removed for language that offends a student.

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IMAGES: John Lock/Shutterstock, USC Marshall School, Black at USC/Instagram

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About the Author
Alexander Pease -- University of Massachusetts, Boston