Free Speech

Art History Professor Condemned by Stanford Undergraduate Senate

Her crime? Spelling out what the rap group N.W.A. stands for, and quoting one of their lyrics.

|The Volokh Conspiracy |


From the Senate resolution, which came out about a month ago, but which I only learned about several days ago (underlining added to note some key phrases):

WHEREAS on April 28th, 2020 in the course titled "Introduction to Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity," Professor Rose Salseda was invited to teach and said, "nigga," while reciting lyrics to the 1988 classic by N.W.A., "Fuck tha Police;" and

WHEREAS on May 4th, 2020, in the course titled "Riot!: Visualizing Civil Unrest in the 20th and 21st Centuries" Professor Salseda wrote "Niggaz" twice while writing the full name of the group N.W.A and discussing their artwork, and …

WHEREAS use of the n-word by a White person or Non-Black person of color is offensive and highly inappropriate, especially in courses whose teachings intend to value and center Black liberation; and

WHEREAS this is not the first incident of racial violence against Black students in which a non-Black lecturer has employed and said the n-word while teaching, but hopefully will be the last; …

THEREFORE BE IT BE RESOLVED BY THE UNDERGRADUATE SENATE

THAT the Undergraduate Senate is appalled by and condemns Professor Rose Salseda's continuous aggressions against the Black community and Black students, particularly her repeated use of the n-word in Canvas discussion board communications on May 4th, 2020. Reckless actions of this manner and Salseda's disturbing presence teaching Black art and art history in our intellectual community must be dealt with….

THAT the Undergraduate Senate calls for the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity to reconsider what courses Professor Rose Salseda can teach (i.e Introduction to African-American Art), bring her back to Introduction to CSRE to listen / fully take ownership of her actions, participate in identity and cultural humility training ….

Prof. Salseda, an assistant professor, apologized; nearly everyone does, of course. What have things come to, though, that university professors (and surely also students) can't accurately quote important music, literature, or film that they are discussing? (Unless, of course, they're the right color.) Presumably Stanford professors discussing the lyrics would be required to say, "I don't know if they fags or what / Search a n-word down, and grabbin' his nuts." (Or should it be "I don't know if they f-words or what …"?) I wonder what the members of N.W.A. would think about that.

And of course you can't simply play the song (or the movie, whether it's To Kill a Mockingbird or Pulp Fiction or Godfather, Part II or The Shining or Rocky or Platoon or many others), as the UCLA Ajax Peris incident shows: He was faulted both for reading a passage with the word "nigger" from Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Letter from Birmingham Jail and for "show[ing] a portion of a documentary which included graphic images and descriptions of lynching, with a narrator who quoted the n-word in explaining the history of lynching." Presumably you'd have to edit the song or video to bleep out the word—bleep it out not for the sake of small children, but for the sake of adult university students.

It's as if the Stanford Undergraduate Senate decided that, to protect Holocaust survivors and their children or grandchildren (perhaps now, or perhaps in 1960, when there was an ever closer connection between some students and the Holocaust), all swastikas in photographs, on maps, or in movies had to be fuzzed out, and when talking about death camps, you'd have to say "Au-place" and "Tre-place" (at least unless you were Jewish). Are swastikas offensive? Of course. Can seeing them be upsetting to people for whom the Nazi reign of terror hit close to home? Sure. But it seems to me that American universities should show and talk about history as it is, without fuzzing or bleeping or expurgating. Likewise for showing and talking about film, music, literature, and legal disputes.