It is an innocuous expression, but an academic has been suspended for using the Chinese word for ‘um’ because it sounded like a racial slur.
Professor Greg Patton was giving a lecture about the use of ‘filler words’ during an online class at the University of Southern California when he mentioned the Chinese expression ‘neige’ (pronounced ‘nee-gah’) saying: ‘If you have a lot of ‘ums and errs’… based on your native language, like in China… it might be nee-gah, nee-gah, nee-gah.’
A group of students threatened to withdraw from the class rather than ‘endure the emotional exhaustion of carrying on with an instructor that disregards cultural sensitivities’, adding: ‘Our mental health has been affected.’
But last night the mother of a USC student said: ‘This is political wokeness gone mad. Professor Patton was teaching students about Chinese business culture and how the expression ‘nee-gah’ is often used as a pause in negotiations.
Professor Greg Patton was giving a lecture about the use of ‘filler words’ during an online class at the University of Southern California
‘It was nothing to do with the N-word and there was no context for what he said to be interpreted as racist. It is heartbreaking.
‘A wonderful professor has been suspended and put through this. It’s outrageous.’
But the university has backed the students. In a grovelling apology, it said: ‘Recently a faculty member during class used a Chinese word that sounds similar to a vile racial slur in English. Understandably, this caused great pain and upset among students. We acknowledge the historical, cultural and harmful impact of racist language and offer supportive measures to any student, faculty or staff member who requests assistance.’
According to the university’s website, he is ‘an expert in communication’ and has received ‘numerous teaching awards’. Pictured: The Doheny Memorial Library at the University of Southern California
It said Prof Patton had been placed on administrative leave ‘while we review the situation and take any appropriate next steps’.
According to the university’s website, he is ‘an expert in communication’ and has received ‘numerous teaching awards’. A source said Prof Patton is ‘devastated’ by the episode and is consulting lawyers.
In an email last week, Prof Patton explained he had been teaching the class for a decade and tried to ‘include as many international, global, diverse, female, broad and inclusive leadership examples’ as possible in his lessons.
He said he had been taught to pronounce the word as he had in Shanghai, adding: ‘I have strived to best prepare students with real-world examples to make the class come alive. I did not connect this in the moment to any English words and certainly not any racial slur.’