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USC professor under fire after using Chinese word that sounds like English racial slur

The University of Southern California USC campus near downtown Los Angeles was quiet Wednesday as classes are being held online for the first day. (Al Seib/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

The University of Southern California has placed a communications professor on a short-term “pause” as officials investigate his use of a Chinese word that sounds like an English racial slur, an incident that angered several Black students in his class.

Prof. Greg Patton was discussing filler words during a virtual business lesson about public speaking last month when he used a Chinese term that is pronounced as “nàgè” or “nèi ge.”

“If you have a lot of ‘ums’ or ’errs’ — this is culturally specific — so based on your native language, like in China, the common word is ‘that, that, that, that,’” he said. “So in China it might be ‘nèi ge, nèi ge, nèi ge, nèi ge.’”

Shortly after the Aug. 20 class, a group of students accused Patton of mispronouncing the Chinese expression to make it sound like the N-word. In an email obtained by multiple news outlets this week, the students said the professor offended “all of the Black members of our Class” and affected their mental health.

USC officials confirmed that Patton “agreed to take a short term pause” while they review the situation and take “any appropriate next steps.” A different instructor has taken over the class in the meantime.

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“We acknowledge the historical, cultural and harmful impact of racist language,” a university spokesman said in a statement to the Daily News. “USC is committed to building a culture of respect and dignity where all members of our community can feel safe, supported, and can thrive.”

Patton, who has taught at USC’s Marshall School of Business for more than 20 years, apologized in an Aug. 26 letter obtained by The News.

“I have strived to best prepare students with Global, real-world and applied examples and illustrations to make the class content come alive and bring diverse voices, situations and experiences into the classroom,” the letter states. “This particular international illustration is a class example I have received positive feedback when presenting in the past. Yet, I failed to realize all the many different additional ways that a particular example may be heard across audiences members based on their own lived experiences and that it my fault.”

Patton explained that he has taught the course for a decade and the example he used was given to him by several international students years ago. He described the Chinese term for “that” as “an extremely common filler word in the Chinese language” and said he learned the pronunciation after spending years in Shanghai.

“I have since learned there are regional differences, yet I have always heard and pronounced the word as ’naaga’ rhyming with ’dega,’” Patton wrote.

“Given the difference in sounds, accent, context and language, I did not connect this in the moment to any English words and certainly not any racial slur,” he added.

A group representing Black MBA candidates at the Marshall School of Business did not immediately return a request for comment Friday.

But the email that was written to USC officials following the virtual class accused Patton of “negligence and disregard” and said students would rather drop the class if he continued teaching it.

“It is an uneasy feeling allowing him to have the power over our grades,” they wrote, according to the conservative magazine National Review.

“We would rather not take his course than to endure the emotional exhaustion of carrying on with an instructor that disregards cultural diversity and sensitivities and by extension creates an unwelcome environment for us Black students,” the letter states.

The group also accused Patton of “conveniently” stopping the Zoom recording right before saying the Chinese word, an allegation he denies.

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© 2020 New York Daily News