Campus Free Speech

Columbia Student Offended by Professor Who Said Negro Was Correct Term in the '60s

"I didn't pay attention in class after that."



A Columbia University student was angry with her sociology professor for saying it was appropriate to use the term negro when referring to people of color while discussing the 1960s. She wrote to the professor, explaining to him that negro was an offensive and outdated term, but he failed to adjust his vocabulary. "I didn't pay attention in class after that," the student, Maria Martinez, told The Columbia Daily Spectator.

Here's some context: The professor is Todd Gitlin, a longtime leftist activist who served as president of Students for a Democratic Society in the early '60s. He teaches a course in American studies.

"It is in fact true, a matter of historical record, that African Americans in the '50s and '60s wanted to be called 'Negroes,'" Gitlin told The Spectator. "Denying that practice would be a falsification of history."

That was just the lead anecdote of the Spectator piece, which discussed student complaints about their professors' alleged microaggressions:

Sabina Jones, CC '20, recalled a white professor saying the N-word when reading it in a racially-charged book in an English class. She said this experience made it difficult to engage in class for the rest of the semester.

"It's hard to continue on, not knowing if you are welcome in a space completely or [if] people have the knowledge to welcome you to a space," she said. "It creates a roadblock in continuing down the path that you want to continue on."

These tense interactions, commonly known as microaggressions, occur when comments or actions are—either intentionally or unintentionally—discriminatory or offensive towards people of marginalized identities.

But as I've written previously, the theory behind microagressions doesn't stand up to scrutiny. The concept is ill-defined, according to Emory University psychologist Scott Lilienfeld, and in surveys most members of minority groups aren't even offended by this sort of thing, according to the Cato Institute. It would therefore be unwise to insist that professors cater to the sensitivities of students like those quoted by the Spectator.

Yet that's exactly what some of the offended students apparently want—mandatory cultural sensitivity training for the faculty:

"Mandatory trainings are less about punishing or limiting conversation, but more making sure that everyone has the language and the basic knowledge to be able to engage in those conversations," Martinez said.

It seems like quite a stretch to suggest that Gitlin is lacking in basic knowledge of the subject at hand.

Students, and young people more broadly, are often unfairly smeared as delicate snowflakes. But when students shout down Christina Hoff Sommers at Lewis and Clark College, take offense at a photograph of Charles Murray, or level sexual harassment charges at an avante-garde film professor for showing his experimental film, it can be challenging to dispute the stereotype.

Hat tip: The College Fix