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Letters to the Editor: A USC professor did not use a racial slur in his class — and he was punished anyway?

USC campus
Students make their way through the USC campus.
(Los Angeles Times)

To the editor: The N-word in the English language has a history in this country connected to racism, slavery, cruelty and violence. Those who use the word do so with a specific intent to denigrate, hate and harm. (“Controversy over USC professor’s use of Chinese word that sounds like racial slur in English,” Sept. 5)

However, in the case the Mandarin word meaning “that,” whose first syllable is pronounced “nay” or “nah” and not “nih,” not a single one of those facts applies. The Mandarin word is not a racial slur, nor do its speakers use it with hateful intent. It just means “that.”

There is no defensible reason why USC professor Greg Patton, who used a word with a wholly different history and language in a lecture on communication in international business, should be removed from teaching his course.

Linda Williamson, Granada Hills

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To the editor: I am a Black man who has lived in China. I have never even thought about the Mandarin word “nei ge” or “na ge” sounding like the N-word — until now.

When Greg Patton, a communication specialist who is not a native Mandarin speaker, says the word, it sounds more like the N-word than it does when I hear people in China say it.

I understand how it is possible that the Black students in Patton’s class might have wanted to know more about the word, but I think the Marshall School of Business at USC went too far in removing him from teaching the course. An opportunity to enhance communication has been lost.

Roland Nicholson Jr., New York

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To the editor: Is there evidence that Patton used a Chinese filler word to insult his Black students on purpose? If not, he should not be punished for citing a good example in his communication class just because some students did not like it.

Otherwise, as a Chinese American, I would be afraid of speaking my native language from now on because I might offend someone unintentionally.

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The school can acknowledge hurt feelings as an unintended consequence, but I believe the students should also learn that accusing someone of racism is not the way to deal with feelings or solve issues in life. Blatant discrimination should not be tolerated, but we do not need to see everything through the lens of race.

Delicia Hsu, Irvine

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To the editor: In 2003 I was sent to work at a truck factory in rural China as part of an effort to integrate accounting systems in a new joint venture. For more than two hours I presented our plans, translated into Mandarin, to the dozens of assembled factory accountants and managers.

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At the end of my presentation I asked if anyone had questions. I vividly remember the first gentleman standing up and repeatedly saying what sounded to me like the N-word. I was stunned.

Later, I learned that this was their version of “um” — nothing more, nothing less.

So in reading about Patton, I believe his error was not warning the students ahead of time that the equivalent of “um” in China sounds extremely unpleasant to us. After all, condemning another language strikes me as perpetuating American cultural supremacy.

Denis Cagna, Los Angeles


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