Friday, May 24, 2013

Negro = Black... Fired Spanish Teacher Accused of Racial Slur

So this story is about a Spanish teacher who was fired for using the word "negro" in class to teach the Spanish word for "black," only to have a student claim a racist slur had been used. The teacher was fired, and a lawsuit has been filed (although I'm unclear on who filed the lawsuit against whom and whether this was just an excuse to fire the teacher because of past complaints). This reminds me of the girl who took out of context the professor who was lecturing about the Holocaust last year. 

I teach courses in Linguistics and an occasional language course from time to time (the language course is not part of my normal teaching load, so happens once every few years). And in that context, when we do the units on "swearing" and "offensive language," I always give my chair and the dean a heads up about what we're covering and in what ways we are going to be discussing terms. Rather than using the words themselves, I ask students to use numbers to refer to derogatory terms as we discuss them, so no one can claim that I forced them to use words they were uncomfortable using. In addition, I always let students know ahead of time that these terms are being discussed within a specific context to understand how language can be used as a form of power and to reinforce sexist, racist, and classist, etc. ideology. Most students roll with it. 

The two times that students have complained (once to the president, and once to my chair), they were the students earning the lowest grades in the class. I'm not sure that they misinterpreted what was happening in the class, as they claimed. I think they saw an opportunity to get me in trouble because they felt they were being treated unfairly for not being allowed to hand in work late or make up work they'd failed to do. 

Whenever I see an educator being accused of doing something outrageous, without clear evidence (i.e. pictures of a professor sitting in the hallway nude, which was a very sad situation), I wonder if perhaps the students simply see this as their opportunity to vilify someone who doesn't deserve it.

At what point do we simply have to record our classes so that the context IS clear and in the event of a lawsuit, we will have evidence of what was really said? Is it alarmist to demand that we have witnesses present when we lecture on anything that might be misconstrued by ignorant students? Can we even anticipate what students will view as offensive?

While I don't, in the near future, plan to record myself, I do wonder where we're headed in the future.


  1. I had a relative who worked in a garment factory with many of her co-workers being Spanish-speakers. If she wanted a certain colored garment, she would use the Spanish words like "blanco" or "negra." Her boss took her aside after someone complained and said "Don't call them [i.e. African-Americans] 'negro,' call them 'black.'"

    Double face-palm.

  2. That stuff about the Spanish teacher is all well and good, but we all know the real threat to education in America is the niggards.

  3. "Smith had allegedly asked students who had failed a test to move to the back of the room, but says she never called them failures."

    Sooooo, maybe this is a teacher with some judgement issues.

  4. A student at our Uni complained that a Hum department had a painting of Hitler on display. The painting in question was of the department's founding member in his WWI uniform. He had a mustache.