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“Neìgè” in Chinese: the unlikely story of a homophone aggression

A management professor at a Californian university had his class suspended after pronouncing the word “neìgè” in Chinese to his students. A surprising story that illustrates the tension around racism in American colleges.

Lost in translation

During an online course on managerial communication at the University of Southern California on August 20, Professor Greg Patton referred to “filler words”, such as “uh”, “um”, “er”, “ah” in English, which are used when a person pauses in a speech and whose meaning can vary depending on the context. 

Patton explained that in Chinese, the word used was “nei-ge”, which means “that” , but is often used as a filler such as “like”. In Mandarin, the word is written nàgè, (那个), but orally, we usually say “neìgè”, a pronunciation quite similar to the word “nigger” in English (The “N-word” has long been banned in the United States where it has a particularly racist and violent resonance). The Zoom course ended normally and no one complained to Patton, as he tells the specialist media The Chronicle.

Controversy, anguish and trauma

It was a few days later, as he was going through the “mid-course evaluations” given by his students, that Greg Patton discovered 3 mentions (out of 200) of the example in Mandarin. The teacher tells The Chronicle that the very next morning he hastened to send an e-mail to his students to apologise: “My intention was always to integrate and propose different voices and perspectives… And I failed with an example given on Wednesday”. The next morning, Patton apologised again on Zoom by making an appearance in another diversity class and pledged to replace the Mandarin example with a Portuguese one.

On the same day, a group of students wrote a letter to the administration stating that “their mental health had been affected” and that they would rather “not continue this course than have to endure the emotional exhaustion of having a teacher who ignores diversity and cultural sensitivities”. In their text, they also claim that the teacher mispronounced the Mandarin word and accuse him of negligence and contempt.

While initially Patton was promised by the Dean of the University’s School of Business that he could resume his classes and that students who no longer wished to attend would be offered other options, the administration finally gave in to student pressure to have the professor leave the course.

In a letter to the MBA students in question, the director of the business school at the college said that “It is simply unacceptable for faculty to use words in class that can marginalize, hurt and harm the psychological safety of our students”. He said he was “deeply saddened” by the disturbing episode that caused “so much anguish and trauma”.

An outcome which is astonishing here in Europe, especially since Patton neither pronounced nor wanted to use the “N-word” but a Chinese word which is only guilty of resembling the oral “N-word”. For the students who denounced him, it’s the thoughtlessness that is problematic: the professor should have thought that this word resembled the “N-word” and therefore not pronounce it in front of his students, or at least warn them before pronouncing the word thanks to trigger warnings.

In the letter, they also imply that the word has been mispronounced so that it sounds like “N-word” when in reality it is pronounced differently. A statement refuted by many specialists, such as:

Microagressions

In order to understand and contextualise this affair – beyond the Black Lives Matter movement – it should be noted that alongside the major citizen mobilisations against police violence and racism, anti-racism in the United States (particularly in colleges) is increasingly focused on the fight against the “micro-aggressions” suffered by minorities. Micro-aggressions which, in activists’ minds, make their lives unbearable and give them – by dint of repetition – a feeling of marginality and insecurity which is sometimes overwhelming.

Presented as “small insults that accumulate over time and cause serious damage to disadvantaged groups”, microaggressions now have their micro-guide; in the words of its author, universities sometimes take it too literally. The University of California, among others, uses this guide.

The controversy of the controversy

The case has sparked incomprehension and indignation among many Mandarin speakers, here on Twitter:

Chinese students at the university in turn expressed concern that a Mandarin word, which is widely known and used in China, could be considered racist. The president of the Chinese Students’ Association said: “Affirming the rights of one minority should not be done at the expense of the rights of another minority. We have the right to speak our language”.

The USC even found itself – in turn – accused of racism:

The BCC association, which intends to “bring the voice of Blacks in the China space” also defended the professor by saying it was “shocked” by the university’s decision:

The affair madea lot of noise even on Chinese social networks where the Chinese song “Sunshine Rainbow Little White Horse” by Wowkie Zhang was taken as an example. The word in question is repeated throughout the chorus:

A petition calling for the professor’s reinstatement and defending freedom of expression collected more than twenty thousand signatures

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