By Victoria Zambello
On Friday in an African American Literature course on Zoom, the professor read out loud a passage with a racial epithet from Toni Morrison’s literature, Beloved. The word appeared three times in the passage. The first time the word appeared Smith replaced it with an offensive term that also starts with the letter N. The second time the word was presented she said the word “blank,’ and the third time the word was written she read out loud the racial epithet.
One student logged out of the zoom meeting from shock and anger. About five minutes later, a student called out the ‘elephant’ in the room. “Somebody else (in the class) spoke up and said ‘well, Toni Morrison is a black author and a black woman. You are white,” said an anonymous student.
As a class, there was an agreement made between the professor, Lorrie Smith, and students at the beginning of the semester, saying that in no context will the racial epithet be used. “We had agreed that the word would not be spoken aloud in our class. I violated this agreement, and I apologize for the impact it has had on my students and the fallout it has engendered in our community,” said Smith in a statement.
“I made a split-second decision to maintain the integrity of Morrison’s prose and to read it in its entirety. I felt that although the word would be spoken aloud, we would be able to discuss how the author used it to reveal the racist inhumanity of the slave-catcher’s perspective. I was working as a literature teacher whose primary practice for 40 years has been close textual analysis, and this was a conditioned reflex I didn’t fully examine in the moment. I was not taking into account the explosive, damaging impact of this toxic word, even as a quotation in a text,” Smith said.
The administration is aware of this incident. “We in the administration are actively engaged in a process of discussions with students and the professor,” said Dean of Faculty Tara Natarajan in a statement.
For the students, the experience left them questioning how the professor handled it. “In my perspective, we needed a response from her, at the moment. The part that gets to me is not the during, it is the before and after acts. Before the act she never asked for consent, she never warned us. Then after the act, she had no remorse,” said one student in the class who did not want to share their name.
“It impacted me. My first initial reaction was to reach out to the students of color in the class,” said Jane Bradley ’23. “Obviously, it didn’t impact me in the same way because I am white, but I trusted Lorrie so much and now I am questioning if I should take her advice. It is also hurtful because she hasn’t reached out to me. She has reached out to the students of color in the class, but I don’t get why she didn’t reach out to the entire class,” Jane Bradley ‘23 said.
Twice in Two Months
During the first week of fall semester, an adjunct professor used the same racial epithet in his theories: conflict and resolution course. Students from the African American Literature course talked about this after the fact to Smith. “I cried in front of Professor Smith and told her the emotional trauma I had from this word,” said a student who did not want to share their name.
Margaret Bass, special assistant to the president for diversity and inclusion met with the students in the class later that afternoon. “I have talked with members of this class and I understand how deeply wounded they are, but I have to also say as a human being and a professor whom I have had some relationship with, this is an extremely painful time for Professor Smith as well. I feel great empathy for what she is going through. Everybody involved is deeply pained and it is unfortunate.”
Bass also said that this incident will be treated differently than the previous incident on the first day of classes. “ There are two reasons. One is that in this case the professor has tenure and with tenure comes certain protections and one of those protections is academic freedom,” said Bass. “The second is there is a remarkable difference between reading the terms in service of the academic enterprise and saying them and that is a distinction between those in these situations as far as I know.”
The faculty member who replaced the adjunct faculty member from the first incident said. “Other black people might have a different perspective than me. I’ve heard other people say that it does depend on the context, whether you can use that word or not, but based on how I feel when I hear that word, especially from a person of authority, I think it is incredibly damaging and hurtful,” said Kayla Loving, who now teaches the theories: and conflict resolution course
“This class had worked hard to build trust and openness with the difficult subject matter, in a difficult semester, with the difficult medium of Zoom, and at a difficult moment in history,” said Smith.
“As a person who has been part of the professoriate, I stand firmly behind academic freedom. As an African American woman of color in 2020, my position is, under no circumstances do we say read, utter, any variation of the n-word,” Bass said.
Bass said she stands by the St. Michael’s Racial Justice Task Force, which is nearly two months old and whose members include Amdework Assefa, Valerie Bang-Jensen, Margaret Bass, Sarah Childs, Kathryn Dungy, Kerri Leach, and Mark Lubkowitz. “The RJTF recognizes the importance of academic freedom but it does not extend to actions, deeds, or speech that create an unsafe classroom and thereby hinder learning. “It is the obligation of educators to learn and be aware of what is harmful,” they wrote in a statement.
“In my perspective, we needed a response from her, at the moment. The part that gets to me is not the during, it is the before and after acts.”
-Anonymous student from the course
“Now we have to have a direct conversation about this issue so that people don’t have to be hurt by other people’s missteps or mistakes. It’s too much pain, too much pain,” said Bass.
One approach to healing after an incident like this, is to hold a restorative justice session. According to Loving, restorative justice circles are where harm can be addressed. “Generally you should have both parties, the affected party, and the responsible party. Restorative justice is often portrayed as a fluffy, kind of happy thing, but it’s not that at all. It’s very uncomfortable, and I definitely think restorative justice should be used in situations like these,” she said.
The Dean of Faculty is encouraging faculty to go to a forum on the use of language in class at the end of this month. “That is not a training, that is information so that we don’t have to have this distressing situation on campus again,” Bass said.
“I understand why my students feel hurt, angry, and confused,” Smith said. “I deeply regret my error, and I apologize for the pain it has caused. Having devoted my whole career to building bridges, not shying away from difficult conversations, advocating for diversity and BIPOC students, and sharing the richness of African American literature, I am heart-sick that my good intentions caused racial harm rather than racial healing,” said Smith.
“I hope the class and I—and, indeed, our whole community and our whole nation—can will be able to use moments like this as an opportunity to find our way to a place of mutual understanding, authentic connection, and trust.”
“As an African American woman of color in 2020, my position is, under no circumstances do we say read, utter, any variation of the n-word.”
-Margaret Bass, Special Assistant to the President for Diversity & Inclusion
It has come to our attention that in our recently published article, “‘It’s too much pain, too much pain’: Professor uses racial epithet reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved,” referred imprecisely to academic freedom. Vice President of Academic Affairs, Dr. Jeffrey Trumbower explained: “At Saint Michael’s College, all professors, whether they have tenured status or not, whether they are full-time or part-time, enjoy the same standards of academic freedom. This principle is enshrined in our Faculty Regulations, adopted by both the faculty Assembly and the Board of Trustees. The two recent cases that Dr. Bass was referring to in the article had a number of differences that explain the differences in outcome for the professors involved, but tenure status and standards of academic freedom were not among those differences.”