Should racial slurs be used by white academics?

By using racist language, College discourages students from questioning instances of racism. This actively makes seminars and tutorials an openly hostile learning environment for BIPOC and antiracist students

Trinity has a race problem. A recent example made obvious is the controversial debate over the renaming of the Berkeley Library, the namesake of Irish philosopher and slave owner George Berkeley. Some see this as a testament to how many “successful” greats of the past were racist oppressors. Others see this as a great man who was a product of his time. However, there is much more insidious racism that is presently taking place within classrooms.

In Trinity’s School of English, racial slurs are used flippantly. This is a decision made by College. It is also a decision of the academy to have a solely white teaching staff for the degree-mandatory postcolonial Literature module. This absence of racial diversity takes place linguistically in English studies, as well as representationally. In classes, it is commonplace to hear racial slurs coming from the learned mouths of older white academics. This, they claim, is solely for the purposes of discussion. When dissenting to verbal racist abuse, students are commonly told that the incidences of these slurs are cushioned in quotation marks. In defence of the lecturers, they preface this violence by explaining to students that sensitive subjects will be discussed in these classes. I wonder what sensitivity the lecturers are bringing to class by their inclusion of terms that are widely considered as hallmarks of racist abuse. 

“It seems that this reckoning of violence is an excuse to perpetuate it.”

Of course, it is likely the whiteness of the School of English’s faculty and wider student body that allows these lecturers to feel comfortable in their racist expressions. By using racist language, not only does College discourage white students from questioning instances of racism, some teaching staff actively make seminars and tutorials openly hostile to black and brown students. Consider the aggressive learning environment that is created by speaking racist slurs aloud (with a hard ‘r’, for those curious). This is all in the name of reckoning with violence. It seems that this reckoning of violence is an excuse to perpetuate it. 

On College’s website, the anti-bullying and harassment policy is easy to find. It reads “The Dignity and Respect Policy supports a respectful work and study environment free from bullying and harassment.” I ask the department to justify what place racial slurs have in such an environment.

You may be wondering if there is a case to be made for modern-day discussions referencing the written use of racial slurs. To answer this fairly, you would need the presence and opinion of black and brown lecturers and teaching assistants to be in the Arts and Humanities departments. Never once in my postcolonial module was an academic of colour systematically marginalised in the study of the Western canon invited to speak on ideas of racism, of the ideas that came after colonialism, or on the assigned reading written by black and brown authors. Again I wonder: why is a solely white faculty teaching Postcolonial thought? 

To explore this problem, I sat down with Ly Hagan, a second-year student of English and Philosophy. Ly has witnessed campus racism on both a personal and institutional level. Identifying as Irish while also having lived in the USA and in Hanoi, they have felt “reduced to the third world” and “not welcomed by the humanities in TCD” amid the “very homogenous” and archetypal “South Dublin” type of person. Ly has been told with surprise that their “English is very good” and in certain circumstances, has received a baffled reaction to their chosen course of study. 

Ly also points to the class division that stratifies students as a contributing stressor for people of colour. They state that often, in tutorials that discuss race, they are the sole person of colour contributing to these discussions. “There’s not alot of us” they say with a half smile. “[In tutorials] It sucks being the only person of colour. I’ve lived in so many places, I’ve never felt a part of a ‘group’ in Trinity.” Ly has a sense of being “not Vietnamese enough, not Irish enough, not American enough” for other students. They mention that this division informed their sense of isolation in College. At one point, this alienation led Ly to consider dropping out. 

The English department, Ly relates to me, regularly justifies racist perspectives in classical texts, citing the example of Oroonoko, a text by 17th-century writer, Aphra Behn. “It made me so enraged defending [the novelist] … The English department constantly discusses race. Because of the lack of people of colour [within the student body and faculty] in the room, this can be a traumatising experience. Only the other day, a classmate put forward the idea that nowadays everyone either knows a black person or has seen them on TV. I think it is a wealthy, South Dublin mentality that allows people to not know any people of colour. There are plenty of people of colour in Dublin. You can have the ability to move through Trinity without encountering people of colour. [In these discussions] white people can remove themselves emotionally from these discussions. But for me, it never goes away.”

Ly references the ubiquitous whiteness of College, stating that “in my tutorials there are just as many British and American lecturers as there are Irish lecturers. Of course, Trinity employs English Literature academics from overseas. It stands that I’ve only encountered white ones so far.” When I relate the racist slurs said in my English classes they say “that it’s not surprising. As a person of colour, going to an elite institution, I almost expect this to happen.” 

Ava Chapman, a final year English and History student, testifies that in her postcolonial class two years ago, racist slurs were used by white professors. She finds it “disappointing” to hear such harmful language used in the classes that are meant to teach us about experiences and structures of oppression. “[In English] there is a lack of regard for the implications and weight of that word.” She also describes how in their American History class “the ‘n-word’ was said on multiple occasions when citing from a text.” This gratuitous use of slurs was performed by a professor who has been awarded numerous teaching awards by College.

In a dilemma similar to my own, she describes: “everyone I spoke to after class was upset by the professor’s actions but did not know how to address the situation either due to shock or because they didn’t want their academic grades to suffer.”

Last year in my postcolonial class we read the text Can the Subaltern Be Heard? by Indian literary critic Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. The answer is that College does not want to hear its voice of dissent. Is the university still racist? The answer rings in my ears.