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Professor investigated for writing racial slur

On Sept. 27, a professor wrote a racial slur on a whiteboard in front of his class, leading to an investigation.

Dr. Fred Earls, a communication professor at VSU, wrote the n-word on a whiteboard during his lecture, which has caused controversy. The lecture was on how language changes depending on who uses it, using the n-word as the lead of the discussion. 

Dr. Michael Schmidt, dean of the College of the Arts, responded to the issue first-hand by visiting the following class.

“We immediately began investigating the issue with the appropriate individuals on campus,” said Dr. Schmidt. 

It is unclear if any actions have been taken against the professor.

Unfortunately, VSU does not comment on personnel matters,” said Dr. Schmidt.

Dr. Earls did not comment on the specifics of the event.

“There are still situations that are working themselves out in the background surrounding the class,” said Dr. Earls. “I want the dust to settle before I talk about it.”

The previous lecture was about the three different types of communication: abstraction, arbitrary, and ambiguity. This specific lesson was arbitrary. 

He wrote the word onto the whiteboard and then turned to the class.

“Is that offensive?” asked Dr. Earls. “How many of y’all don’t know what this word means?” 

The class was silent. 

“If you don’t know what it means, how can it be offensive?” he asked.  

Dr. Earls then wrote “Niger” on the board. He explained that it’s a country and that the N-word is a derivative of this word.

“If you’re in this class and you’re black, is it OK for you to use this word?” he asked. “And it’s not okay for other people, other colored-skinned people to use this word?” 

Dr. Earls then began to clarify the intent of his message. 

“I’m not trying to offend you; I want you to think because this is about verbal language that we are getting ready to talk about in some different ways, and this is the one thing that I always bring up,” said Dr. Earls.  

He then explained the meaning of the word. 

“It just means black,” said Dr. Earls. “Sometimes words that we use don’t mean what it really means, and the point is culture changes the definition of a word.”

Dr. Earls spoke of an experience with his friend being treated a certain way because of the way that she looked. 

“If she goes into a dark room and closes her eyes and doesn’t smile, you’ll never know she’s there,” said Dr. Earls. “But there’s one problem. She’s not African, she’s Panamanian.”

Dr. Earls described her experience in a grocery store. She could tell others were talking about her in Spanish, but they didn’t know that she could understand them perfectly. 

“How does a Spanish person look? How does a Panamanian look?” asked Dr. Earls. “I don’t know that there is a look.”

He relates this back to the lesson of the way language changes. 

“Our culture takes words and assumptions and changes them according to whatever fits the bill,” said Dr. Earls.

On Sept. 29, Dr. Schmidt came to the following class to address the issue. 

“I’m not here to provide excuses and I’m not here to provide context or try to gloss over what took place,” said Dr. Schmidt. “I am here to talk with you about a teachable moment.”

Dr. Schmidt believes that certain material doesn’t have to be taught even if it is in the textbook. 

“Whether the information comes from a textbook or not, I think we can leave that information in the text and there are other things that we can touch upon,” said Dr. Schmidt. 

Other universities have also faced this issue among professors using this racial slur.

CBC News reported that in 2020 Professor Ashley Glassburn-Falzetti at the University of Windsor used the N-word in her class to give warning as to what would be in their reading. The professor later issued an apology to the class saying that she felt that it was wrong.

According to Newsweek, Professor J. Angelo Corlett at San Diego State University was removed from two classes after a dispute over him saying the n-word in his lecture. 

Dr. Schmidt said he understands that many people will have the reaction that the professor should be fired, however, there are more options to look at. 

“I don’t think that’s a solution that lends itself to growth and that’s why we’re all here in the first place, as teachers and students,” Dr. Schmidt told the class. 

Electra Thomas, a sophomore mass media major,  was in the class when the event took place. 

“Somebody said that they read the book, and it didn’t even say that word, but it said other words and I just feel like it was unnecessary,” said Thomas.

Written by Jenna Arnold, News Editor. Photo Courtesy of VSU.

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