Investigated for quoting James Baldwin

Students can’t expect to learn about black history without hearing the n-word.

Aaron Gonzalez


A professor at the New School in New York has been investigated for using the n-word in one of her classes. More bizarrely, Laurie Sheck, who is also a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, was actually quoting the great African-American writer, James Baldwin.

The course Sheck teaches focuses on ‘radical questioning’ in writing. The syllabus features a number of works by African-American authors that grapple with racial discrimination. Students were assigned Baldwin’s 1962 essay, ‘The Creative Process’. During one of her classes, Sheck bought up the 2016 documentary, I Am Not Your Negro. In 1968, Baldwin appeared on The Dick Cavett Show and said, ‘I am not your nigger’. The clip is included in the documentary and Sheck asked her class why they thought the title had been altered from Baldwin’s original statement.

According to Sheck’s account in Inside Higher Education, a white student immediately objected to her use of the n-word. The student said another professor had told her white people should never use the term. The student also noted that both she and Sheck were white and went on to criticise the New School’s whole writing programme as ‘too white’. Student complaints of discrimination then led to a formal investigation.

Eventually, the investigation was dropped following the intervention of free-speech advocacy group FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education). But Sheck’s experience highlights the reluctance of university staff and students to defend free speech and academic freedom.

For instance, when Sheck first learned of the investigation, she turned to her faculty union. But instead of standing up for her academic freedom, it advised her to adopt a more ‘conciliatory position’ to avoid offence. In their view, Sheck could have made changes to her curriculum, added trigger warnings or even asked students to read potentially offensive words to themselves in their heads instead of out loud.

Sheck is not the only professor to come under fire for using the n-word in an academic context. Last year, a professor at Princeton used the n-word in a class on hate speech. After students walked out and complained, he cancelled the course. In the same year, Paul Zwier, a law professor at Emory University, was investigated for using the n-word. He was describing a 1967 civil-rights case, in which a black man was refused service by a venue manager, who called him a ‘negro’. Zwier, although at first unsure what he had said, apologised for mixing up the two words. For his mistake, he was investigated by the university and blocked from teaching for the rest of the semester.

What is extraordinary about all of these cases is how the context in which the n-word appears has been totally ignored. These professors have been treated as if they racially abused their students. But it is surely impossible for students to learn about African-American writers, the civil-rights era or hate-speech laws without encountering racial slurs like the n-word at some point. Objecting to the n-word in these contexts is an unreasonable imposition on teachers. Academic freedom must include the freedom to offend – otherwise these important topics will be kept out of bounds for study.

Aaron Gonzalez is a writer and a student at University of the Arts London.

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Barry Watson

30th August 2019 at 9:57 pm

Yes, but Spiked, YOU shouldn’t be saying “the n word”. You should say ‘nigger’. When talking about the very word, you should use it. It’s only rude when said to black people as a term of abuse. It’s not rude to say the word when talking about the word! If we start down that route (and many have) then thousands of words will be replaced with ‘the ___ word’! Where does that end?

Hana Jinks

29th August 2019 at 7:46 am

This is a story about how just how sinister and insidious the cult of Political Correctness has become. It’s an excellent point made about “context”. PC is nothing but lies, and unless we stop being cowed by it, unless we start scorning and ridiculing it then before long we won’t be able to. Our governments are completely controlled by it, and they’re using the courts and police to enforce this diabolical control-method against us.

Christopher Tyson

28th August 2019 at 8:00 pm

We might ask why we should take any notice of what is going on in these academic institutions. We may argue that they have already lost their credibility, however they can lose their credibility but retain their power. Students in academia are society’s future leaders, they bring these ideas out in to the workplace and the wider culture. We should be sceptical however that these are sensitive and easily offended souls. They pick their targets, a college lecturer, a sport’s star or celebrity makes a good scalp. Below the line at spiked I have used the n-word. For a while spiked was overwhelmed by far Rightists posting all manner of offensive material. I have no quarrel with the far Right we just have incompatible ways of being, for them my very existence is an offence. The targets of my criticisms are usually the left, PC and identity politics. They never respond to my provocations, it is usually the Right wingers that I have to deal with. I called Stephen Lawrence ‘the only good n****r’, pretty provocative I think, I got no response at all. Maybe I should explain that I was actually making a point about the fact that Stephen Lawrence had become an anti-racist icon while the difficulties of many living young black men received little sympathy (including his friend who was with him at the time). So what am I saying? We have a public discourse with all its regulations, those of us who are not a part of the public discourse have a little more freedom to say what we like, we are not a threat and we are easily ignored. If our profile raises, if we start to attract attention we will then become subject to increasing constraints, a kind of self regulating system of censorship.

William Carney

28th August 2019 at 6:40 pm

Professor Paul Zwier is still suspended – indefinitely, and banned from the Law School campus. It is not over; Emory’s Office of Equity and Inclusion (an oxymoron) has completed a so-called investigation and recommends that Professor Zwier be suspended indefinitely without pay. The American Association of University Professors has already warned Emory that this is tantamount to firing him, and that there is an unrebutted prima facie case that his free speech and academic freedom rights have been violated.

Peter Jenkins

28th August 2019 at 6:14 pm

Old news – get up to speed.

Linda Payne

28th August 2019 at 5:56 pm

This proves there are far too many people going to university. If they don’t believe in free thought they should seriously think of doing something else because elite education is what it says on the tin, it demands a lot of you an it demands listening and thinking. Too many of todays students have spent their whole lives in this PC infested culture and now they are threatening free speech because that is what they have been conditioned to do

James Knight

28th August 2019 at 5:42 pm

It is the academics who fail to conform to the language police who are being slurred.

Genghis Kant

28th August 2019 at 2:42 pm

Lenny Bruce was right about the dreaded n-word.
You take power over words, you do not let them have power over you.

Amelia Cantor

28th August 2019 at 10:47 am

How often does it need saying? “Free speech” is not a Black Thing. Or a Muslim Thing. Or a Jewish Thing. Or an LGTQIA+ Thing. Or a Wombyn’s Thing.

It’s a cisgender white male thing. And that’s why it’s heading for the cess-pit of history, as all the communities named above increase inexorably in size and political influence, and cisgender white males dwindle, diminish, and die.

Hana Jinks

29th August 2019 at 7:09 am

Very true. There’s been another round of youtube totalitarianism against white males speaking about this over the last few days.

(25 minute-mark)

Hana Jinks

29th August 2019 at 7:19 am

Anne Marie Waters refers to it as The Great Replacement.

I’m sure that as a fellow wombyn, Anne Marie Waters can count on your vote to represent you as THE NEXT PRIME MINISTER OF THE UK.

Mike Arthur

30th August 2019 at 7:51 pm

Titania, it’s supposed to be difficult to find you, but you’re all over the place. Another £5 please.

brent mckeon

28th August 2019 at 8:25 am

I would rather have questions that can’t be answered than answers that can’t be questioned Richard Feynman

Stephen J

28th August 2019 at 7:03 am

The problem is that in order to educate people you have to be able to address a certain baseline intelligence.

University students are there to learn how to think, not pack loads of boring information into the noddle. I did that without going to university…

By setting an inviolable percentage to the number of citizens that should be attending tertiary education, you weaken the available intelligence pool.

Hana Jinks

28th August 2019 at 8:23 am

The only useful thing that they teach in our marxist-indoctrination centres is English.

Hana Jinks

28th August 2019 at 10:00 am

..up until a certain age, at least.

H McLean

28th August 2019 at 1:54 am

This is what happens when the academy put all of the power into the hands of young, impressionable students being taught in an environment where taking offence is actively encouraged. How on earth did it come to this? Incredibly, it’s as if academics think young adults are somehow only have good and well-intentioned motivations. It reminds me of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia where far-left ideology allowed politically connected children were allowed to judge and kill ordinary citizens for their lack of ideological purity.

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