A teacher from the University of Southern California has been placed on leave after a group of black students threatened to drop his class following him saying a Chinese word that sounded like a racial slur while teaching.
Greg Patton, a professor at the university's Marshall School of Business, was teaching about filler words.
"If you have a lot of ‘ums and errs,' this is culturally specific, so based on your native language," he said. "Like in China, the common word is ‘that, that, that.' So in China it might be ‘nèi ge, nèi ge, nèi ge.'"
Three black members of the class, who identified themselves as "Black MBA Candidates c/o 2022," said in an August 21 email to administration that the professor pronounced the word like the N-word "approximately five times" during the lesson, offending them.
The students also said that they had reached out to Chinese classmates, who said they were "appalled" by the pronunciation.
"It was confirmed that the pronunciation of this word is much different than what Professor Patton described in class," the students wrote in the email. "The word is most commonly used with a pause in between both syllables. In addition, we have lived abroad in China and have taken Chinese language courses at several colleges and this phrase, clearly and precisely before instruction is always identified as a phonetic homonym and a racial derogatory term, and should be carefully used, especially in the context of speaking Chinese within the social context of the United States."
The students added that they would rather drop from the class 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."
Dean Geoff Garrett apologized for Patton's usage of the word and said that a new professor would be taking over the class.
Patton said that his pronunciation was influenced by his time in Shanghai.
"I have since learned there are regional differences, yet I have always heard and pronounced the word as ‘naaga' rhyming with ‘dega,'" the professor wrote in an email to the USC Marshall Graduate Student Association Executive Board. "...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."
USC said that Patton had "agreed to take a short term pause" while the school reviewed next steps.