White Professor At The New School Draws Ire For Quoting Racial Slur During Class
Laurie Sheck is being investigated by The New School for using the word n****r during a discussion of James Baldwin.
August 08, 2019 at 7:40 pm
New School professor Laurie Sheck is being investigated by the school for using the word n****r during a discussion about James Baldwin.
In June, the New School held a meeting with Sheck to discuss her use of n****r during a class in the spring. While reading a James Baldwin essay, Sheck asked the class whether anyone had seen the 2016 James Baldwin documentary I Am Not Your Negro.
She then used the word repeatedly in a discussion about whether it was appropriate to use it in place of the word negro.
A white student immediately spoke up and said it was disrespectful for Sheck to use the word, even when referencing the title of a film. They debated for a bit, but the discussion ended fairly quickly. At the end of the semester, the same white student did a class project on the general use of variations of the slur and referenced the incident.
For decades, Black students across the country have complained about the liberal use of n****r in schools and classes by teachers who do not understand how it feels to hear the word. White teachers, and Sheck in this instance, have defended themselves by saying they want to teach their students about eras in which the word was used.
A number of teachers' groups have come out in defense of Sheck and have lobbied the school not to punish her. In a press release, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education quoted Baldwin himself and said he explicitly wrote about how white efforts to sanitize the word were misguided.
Professor Laurie Sheck quoted author James Baldwin in a graduate-level discussion about the author’s deliberate word choice.— FIRE (@TheFIREorg) August 7, 2019
As a result, the school launched a racial discrimination investigation against her.
This is a violation of her right to academic freedom.
According to Sheck, removing the word would amount to absolving white writers of their racism, and similarly, she said removing it from works by Black writers is akin to censoring the language they chose to use.
“As writers, words are all we have. And we have to give [Baldwin] credit that he used the word he did on purpose,” Sheck said in an interview with Inside Higher Ed.
Once the semester ended, the poet and novelist got a note from the New School asking her to come in for a meeting about the incident. She brought a United Auto Workers-affiliated faculty union representative with her.
The union representative shared the email they sent to Sheck with Inside Higher Ed. They told the professor that she is “an academic who should have academic freedom to teach difficult material, but you are also an employee who has an obligation to follow the directions of your employer. There is no question but that these two things are sometimes in conflict.”
“It may be in your interest to compromise, or to take a conciliatory position. This is your choice," the union representative said in their email to Sheck. "But failing to do so may have consequences. I want you to be aware of them, that is all. For better or worse, public opinion has changed on this issue.”
New School administrators are still deciding what to do with Sheck's case. Her union has told her she should make concessions like offering to change her curriculum or have students read potentially offensive passages. But Sheck has complained that the school did not follow their own rules when it came to the complaint and has vowed to fight until she is "fully exonerated."
In a statement on Tuesday, The New School told Inside Higher Ed that with any “instance or issue, mutual respect and fairness remain fundamental values expected from every member of our community. While we don’t comment on confidential personnel matters, we take our responsibility in these matters very seriously and have robust policies and procedures in place that we follow.”