by Miroslav Imbrišević
I’m white, but I know a thing or two about racism. When I was three, my parents moved to Germany. In kindergarten, a boy once invited me to come and play at his home in the afternoon. I had never been to a German home. We played in the vegetable patch, and I remember that we pulled carrots out of the earth, shook them a bit, and then we ate them. They tasted great. Even today, carrots are my favourite.
Then the mother called us in, and she served “Kaffee und Kuchen” (coffee and cake) – that great German tradition. I don’t think we got real coffee, but I loved the cake, and I was looking forward to future visits to eat some more of it. But I was never invited back again. My five-year-old brain thought it strange, but I stopped thinking about it after a while.
In this provincial town, I never experienced any racism that my young mind would have noticed. Six years later, we moved to a metropolitan area. There, I wasn’t the only foreigner. In my school, there were kids from Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece and Turkey. Here I heard for the first time in my life that I was a “dirty foreigner” (“dreckiger Ausländer”). But I wasn’t actually dirty, because my mother made me wash all the time.
Another insult for us foreigners was directed at what we ate. The general insult for all of us was “Knoblauchfresser” (garlic eater). Italians were “Spaghettifresser” (spaghetti eaters). Turks were ‘Kümmelfresser’ (cumin eaters). The German kids didn’t know what the Spanish, Portuguese, Greeks or us Yugoslavs ate, so we were spared a targeted form of name calling. These were insults, because in German you have two verbs for eating. One is used for humans (“essen”) and another for animals (“fressen”). They tried to tell us that we ate like animals, or perhaps that we were animals? We didn’t take it lying down. We countered with “Kartoffelfresser” (potato eater) and “Sauerkrautfresser” (sauerkraut eater).
Occasionally my classmates asked me to say something in my language. They probably thought that it would sound funny. I asked: “What do you want me to say?” “Say anything!” they would reply, so I would oblige and tell them: “Ti si glup.” (You are stupid).
The recent treatment of Greg Patton, a professor of business communication at USC, made me think about my German childhood in the 1960’s. In an online lecture for MBA students, Prof. Patten introduced a common filler word in Chinese, just like ‘err’, ‘umm’ or ‘you know’ in English. Some students thought that the filler ‘na-ge’ (那个) sounded just like the N-word in English. Three students raised the issue in their feedback forms to Prof. Patton on the same day. “When I read them, my heart dropped, and I have felt terrible ever since,” Patton said. He explained: “I did not connect this in the moment to any English words and certainly not any racial slur,” particularly if you consider the difference in “sounds, accent, context and language.” He immediately apologized to the class in an email and sent another apology the next morning.
But some students imputed ill intent to their professor. They wrote a letter to the dean about the use of the Chinese word in Prof. Patton’s lecture. The dean, Geoffrey Garrett, reacted quickly and announced that Prof. Patton would no longer be teaching the course. “It is simply unacceptable for the faculty to use words in class that can marginalize, hurt and harm the psychological safety of our students,” the dean said.
There is evidence that people listening to Chinese speakers mistake the filler word ‘na-ge’ (meaning ‘that’) for the N-word. The BBC reported: “In July 2016, a fight broke out on the subway in the city of Southern Guangzhou, after a black man heard a Chinese man saying na-ge and mistook it for the N-word.”
Now, you would think that particularly for black businesspeople, who are visiting China, it would be useful to know that the Chinese are not actually insulting them (using the N-word), when speaking Chinese. A common filler word, to mask pauses, just sounds like an insult for black people in English. But in Chinese it literally means “that.”
Neither the students nor the dean understands the importance of context and the value of education. A harmless word in a different language that sounds like a swear word in your own language is not an insult, and it is not objectionable when this is taught in an educational context. It is actually for the benefit of the students to know this. The fight on the subway in Southern Guangzhou could have been avoided, if that man had attended Prof. Patton’s lecture.
In their letter to the dean, the students wrote: “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. The negligence and disregard displayed by our professor was very clear in today’s class.”
Two things in this passage are noteworthy and baffling. The students seem to think that Prof. Patton could have chosen any other character from the more than 10,000 in Chinese to illustrate the use of filler words. But this is nonsense, of course. Arbitrarily introducing any other characters that are not filler words doesn’t really help the students. I suspect that there are only a handful of filler words in Chinese, just like in other languages, so the pool of candidates would have been small. But, more importantly, the students don’t know what a synonym is: a word which has the same meaning as another word (these are distinct lexical items and they sound differently). The Chinese filler ‘that’ is not a synonym for the N-word in English. Instead, what we have here is a homonym across two different languages: two words which sound the same but have different meanings and are spelled differently. I am surprised that the dean didn’t pick up on this.
Prof. Patton has been teaching this course for ten years without any incident. Some students, just like the instructor, may have been oblivious to the similarity in sound; others may have noticed it and realised that this would be useful to know when doing business in China. If he ever gets to teach this class again, Prof. Patton could of course warn students beforehand that some people might mistake the Chinese filler word for an English swear word. But he could stress how important it is to know this in order to avoid any misunderstandings when interacting with Chinese speakers. There might still be people who are aggrieved about this, but sensible university administrators would see the educational benefits and support their staff.
There is a word in English, which comes close to being a homonym of the N-word: the adjective ‘niggardly’. It means “ungenerous,” “tight-fisted,” “stingy.” But the origin of this word goes back to Old Norse and precedes the N-word by many centuries. The only thing they have in common is that they both have negative connotations, but they are different words with different meanings.
In 1999, an English professor used the word while discussing Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, as Chaucer uses it. A black student, who wasn’t familiar with the word, objected. The professor explained the meaning of the word, and kept referring to it in subsequent classes, but the student was still offended. She expected the professor to stop using it.
After 35 years of living in Britain, I don’t recall anyone ever using the word ‘niggardly’. For this reason, I consider it to be obsolete. But, I do remember reading about the occasional controversy it has caused in the US. When studying English literature and language at university it is perfectly legitimate to discuss this word. Students of law and theology might also encounter it. 
Personally, I wouldn’t use it, because it’s not in my active vocabulary, and if people aren’t familiar with the word, they might take it the wrong way. This is easily done. I once used the phrase “to pass muster” in class and soon realised that the students (aged 17-18) were not familiar with it and thought it had something to do with passing the mustard at table.
‘Niggardly’ is not a word that is central to English, unlike words like ‘democracy’, ‘freedom’ or ‘equality’. We can do without this adjective in ordinary life, especially if we wish to avoid conflict. I find it strange that a 4th grade teacher from Wilmington thought it appropriate to introduce her students (aged 9-10) to this word, particularly as there were black children in the class. Even if you explain its meaning, this will inevitably lead to mischief from the children. Things might get trickier when we are dealing with teenagers studying Macbeth. Shakespeare uses a derivation of the word (“Be not a niggard of your speech.”). If the students are mature enough, reading such passages can be done in a sensitive way. However, there are instances when some adults have used the word deliberately to rile up black people, and claim innocence afterwards. It can be used as a code-word. I would only use the word in very specific educational contexts, but not in everyday life. 
Twenty years ago, when I taught philosophy in school, I was always looking for ways to awaken my students from their teenage stupor. I would start my first class about John Stewart Mill’s On Liberty by stamping my foot repeatedly and shouting three times “Kant! Kant! Kant!” and after a short pause, “that great German philosopher!” Initially the students would think I was swearing, because the correct pronunciation of “Kant” sounds like “cunt” in English. I explained to the students that a central theme in Mill’s book is how society puts pressure on the individual to conform, and the pronunciation of “Kant” is a great example, because many philosophers in the English-speaking world, who should be resistant to the pressure to conform, did not pronounce his name correctly. I explained that there was only one among the many Oxford philosophers who would resist changing Kant’s name, and that was P.F. Strawson.
One year, I had a student who wouldn’t accept basic logic, not even the law of non-contradiction. I recommended that he change subjects, and the principal supported me. His mother, a lawyer, was not pleased, however, and threatened to sue me because I had used swear words in class. This mother made the same mistake as the students who objected to the Chinese filler ‘that’. A word in another language that sounds the same in your own language is not the same word. It usually has a different meaning. I always found it funny when Germans said “Jawohl,” because in Croatian it sounds like “I am an ox.” But even as a child I knew that “Jawohl” just meant “yes” and that it was a German word.
There is no doubt that it is important to be sensitive to the reasonable concerns of students. But when this turns to folly, as in the case of Prof. Patton, it must be resisted. Those errant students and the university administrators, who support them in their folly, definitely need more education. Learning a foreign language might be useful.
Miroslav Imbrišević has taught philosophy in high school and at university, most recently at Heythrop College/University of London. He works in the philosophy of sport and in political and legal philosophy. Miroslav blogs here.
 Occasionally, some US judges have used the word in their decisions. In the Revised Standard Version of the New Testament, Paul (II Corinthians 9:6) is made to use the word. However, the King James Version uses ‘sparingly’.
 More on the controversy about ‘niggardly’ here.