Campus Free Speech

USC Communications Professor "on a Short-Term Break" for Giving Chinese Word "Neige" as Example …

in a class discussion of filler words in conversation (which "neige" apparently is).


Campus Reform has the story on Prof. Greg Patton, who is "no longer teaching his" Fall semester course:

"Recently, a USC faculty member during class used a Chinese word that sounds similar to a racial slur in English. We acknowledge the historical, cultural and harmful impact of racist language," the statement read.

Patton "agreed to take a short term pause while we are reviewing to better understand the situation and to take any appropriate next steps."

It includes this video; the USC business school confirmed to me that the video was authentic and the Campus Reform story was accurate:

Prof. Patton, in addition to generally being a professor of business communication, is also with the USC US-China Institute (which might help explain why he would give examples from Chinese):

His international work has primarily focused on China and the Pacific Rim.  He is a key advisor to the Center for Asian-Pacific Leadership at USC, a member of USC's US-China Institute and teaches several courses at Jiao Tong University in Shanghai in the Marshall School's Global Executive MBA Program.

Dr. Patton leads MBA learning programs in Korea and China and has advised on several hundred consulting engagements throughout the Pacific Rim in more than a dozen countries.

Prof. Victor Mair (Language Log), a linguist and Sinologist, passes along this statement from the USC Marshall School of Business dean about the controversy:

Dear Full-Time MBA Class of 2021,

Thank you for your interest and involvement in the current situation concerning the Class of 2022 and their GSBA-542 experience. This matter is of great importance to all of us. Accordingly, I want to make you aware of the action we are taking. This action is described in the attached email* that was just sent to all students in the Class of 2022.


Geoff Garrett

[*see next item below]


Last Thursday in your GSBA-542 classes, Professor Greg Patton repeated several times a Chinese word that sounds very similar to a vile racial slur in English. Understandably, this caused great pain and upset among students, and for that I am deeply sorry. It is simply unacceptable for faculty to use words in class that can marginalize, hurt and harm the psychological safety of our students. We must and we will do better.

Professor Marion Philadelphia, Chair of the Department of Business Communications, will take over teaching the remainder of GSBA-542, beginning tomorrow, Tuesday August 25.

Over the coming weeks and months, I have no higher priority than to work with Vice Dean Sharoni Little, Vice Dean Suh-Pyng Ku and the other members of the Marshall leadership team to identify and redress bias, microaggressions, inequities and all forms of systemic racism associated with anyone's identity throughout our school. We each must grow and learn always to engage respectfully with one another while fostering and exemplifying the knowledge and skills needed to lead and shape our diverse and global world—such as courage, empathy, compassion, advocacy, collaboration, and integrity.

I am deeply saddened by this disturbing episode that has caused such anguish and trauma. What happened cannot be undone. But please know that Sharoni, Suh-Pyng and I along with the entire Full-Time MBA Program team are here to support each of you. We welcome the opportunity to have conversations with any of you individually.


Geoff Garrett

If twenty years ago Rush Limbaugh had given this incident as a hypothetical on his show (perhaps following the "niggardly" controversy), I expected he would have been derided as creating an obviously ridiculous straw-man caricature of liberal universities, a silly and unrealistic slippery slope argument. And yet here we are.

Two other letters to close this post. First, the letter that I think Dean Garrett should have written:

Last Thursday in your GSBA-542 classes, Professor Greg Patton repeated several times a Chinese word (generally transliterated in English as "neige") that sounds very similar to a vile racial slur in English.

This should go without saying, but of course many languages have words that sound vaguely like English epithets or vulgarities, and vice versa. Naturally, USC students are expected to understand this, and recognize that such accidents of pronunciation have nothing to do with any actually insulting or offensive meaning.

To the extent that our first reaction to hearing such a word might be shock or upset, part of language education (or education of any sort) is to learn to set that aside. The world's nearly one billion Mandarin speakers have no obligation to organize their speech to avoid random similarities with English words, and neither do our faculty (or students or anyone else) when they are speaking Mandarin. Indeed, it would be oddly Anglocentric (and indeed offensive to Mandarin speakers) to assume otherwise. And it is simply unacceptable for a university to try to impose any such obligation.

Over the coming weeks and months, one of my high priorities is to make sure that we teach students this and similar basic matters, because otherwise we would be failing in our educational mission. Students who seek to help lead and shape our diverse and global world have to learn to go beyond their initial reactions, and beyond their impulses to try to suppress things simply because they sound vaguely offensive—especially when those impulses stem simply from an (understandably) parochial view that comes from lack of real knowledge of foreign languages and cultures. We each must grow and learn always to engage respectfully with one another.

I am deeply saddened that some students were disturbed by the episode, because such disturbance reflects a failure of our educational system. I resolve that we at USC will teach our students the principles and tools that will keep them from falling into this sort of reaction. Please know that Prof. Patton and I along with the entire Full-Time MBA Program team are here to support each of you, by educating you on these principles.

Second, an e-mail that Prof. Mair reproduces in his post:

Mr. Patton,

I am a student from your communication class in last year's term 1. I received an email from the dean regarding your removal from teaching communication class because of your use of the word  (nà ge) in Chinese as part of a communication example. I am disgusted with the administration's response and their lack of support of a colleague that did nothing wrong. If students seek to mis-interpret the word as a racial slur and claim their "mental health has been affected," so be it.  Please know that there are many people that support you and are sick of this hyper-sensitive, McCarthyism-like environment that is being fostered across the country."

NEXT: George Mason University President Takes "Immediate Steps ... To Advance Systemic and Cultural Anti-Racism" (Updated)

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  1. The Chinese government probably won’t let people say “Uighur,” either.

    Because their government is progressive and anti-racist like that.

  2. It’s very important to note at times like this that racial progressivism is not a cult. None of the behavior of these people resembles what a cult might do. It is all very thoughtful and in no way ritualistic.

  3. In the 1980s I worked for a publishing company that had a number of Asian women as data entry workers. Most were from Taiwan, a few from South Korea. And we had several black women employees too who also were data entry typists.
    I was assistant editor who would sometimes work alongside these really terrific women – they were all fun and hard working and, as a young single man, they doted over me (all were married). Often the Asian women would talk to one another and say, “nega” or “naga” during their exchanges. The black women workers would hear them say this and just laugh and laugh about it. Not upset at all. They thought it was hilarious. I, of course, pretended not to hear it.
    So apparently this “nega” word is perhaps a Mandarin phrase or saying.

    1. “Perhaps”?

      Seems like you may not be following along here.

      1. Yes, I read the story. Do you know what Asian dialect or language the *ladies I worked* with spoke? That was the point of my anecdote.
        I wasn’t referring to the USC faculty professor; I was discussing the Asian woman I worked with and their dialect or language and that it seems that this “nega, nega” phrase crosses several Asian dialects or languages.

        1. Nei ge (from 那一个, “na yi ge”) or na ge, “那个” means “that” or “that one” in Mandarin. Niga is essentially, “you” in Korean (technically ni is “you”, the ga is a grammatical construction that doesn’t translate to English).

    2. Back in my computer programmer days, our small family company had an American tech support guy often working in the same room as a young woman who had recently immigrated from Russia. Our tech support guy liked to use the word “hooey,” perhaps as a folksy but polite alternative to “bullshit” and the like. He didn’t understand why the young woman was giggling about it — the reason being that this sounds almost identical to the Russian vulgarism for “penis,” which is actually more like “fuck” than like “dick” in the massive volume of vulgar words and phrases that derive from it.

      1. Conversely, the Pioneer Valley Transportation Authority (PVTA) which provides taxpayer-subsidized bus service in Western Massachusetts wasted a whole lot of money to design a new logo and paint scheme for their buses. They went with a curved script that made the PVTA look like PUTA.

        Well, in Puerto Rican slang, “puta” means “prostitute” and that became an issue….

      2. That tech support guy is lucky that the young Russian immigrant hadn’t yet gone through sexual harassment training.

      3. I have my own private little joke that sometimes I will use the word “dankon” in an email. Dankon is Esperanto for thank you, and Japanese for a vulgarity related to the male anatomy, so nobody knows whether I’m being polite or vulgar.

        So far no one’s called me out on it.

    3. The word is “na ge” (nah guh–but different dialects pronounce it with variations on the first syllable that come closer to “nay” or “nih”). It means “that”.

      Chinese use it as a “filler sound” the same way we say “Umm” or “uh”.

      I was talking with one of my Chinese students about oddities of learning new languages and she said “When I first started talking with Americans, I wondered why they kept saying “good” in the middle of sentences.” I was very confused, because we don’t do that. Then she smiled and said “Well…. well… well…. ” 🙂

    4. Answer to what the term means in this Russell Peters video:

      1. That video shows that Russel Peters understood why you should be careful when using hat Chinese word. Is it possible that this professor was clueless about people’s sensitivities to that word? It’s possible.

        It’s also possible that he fully understood those sensitivities and threw that into his lecture to make black students uncomfortable.

        I don’t know whether he was clueless or intentional, but let’s admit that it’s possible that he did this intentionally. No idea on what the probabilities here are.

        1. What the hell? Are you for real?
          You obviously didn’t watch the video.

  4. Why isn’t this a textbook example of racial discrimination?

    He is being punished for using a language other than English — that is EXACTLY what this is — and can you imagine the outcry were he to use an equally legitimate word in Spanish and be fired for it?

    1. It sure sounds like a Title VII violation, it’s pretty clear that you can’t fire someone for speaking a foreign language.

      And if this really is a common filler word in Chinese, Chinese-American students and faculty are now on notice that they must be really, really careful when they speak their native language.

      1. It sure sounds like a Title VII violation, it’s pretty clear that you can’t fire someone for speaking a foreign language.


        You can’t, of course, fire someone for being a native speaker of a foreign language, but that’s not what we’re discussing.

        1. You can’t fire someone because of an association with foreigners even if they are not a foreigner. Firing someone for speaking a foreign languages due to a desire not to hear foreign languages is discriminatory even if the person is not a native speaker of that language. Banning a common Chinese word because it reminds you (or others) of an English word is a subset of this behavior.

    2. Even if he were being “punished for using a language other than English”—and I’m not sure I’d agree that’s an accurate characterization—how on earth would that be any kind of racial discrimination, much less a “textbook example”?

      1. A policy against using a common Mandarin word would be national origin discrimination. Here, the professor was disciplined for an association with a particular national origin, in particular, speaking a foreign language.

        As I pointed out above, this de-facto policy presumably makes it very difficult for Mandarin speakers to speak their language.

    3. Campus Reform adds an important detail: it’s a Chinese filler word for “that,” which he was comparing to the usage of “like,” “um,” and other American filler words.

      This is something that Americans who wish to engage in business relationships with persons speaking that language really need to know — including Black Americans. Teaching it is competent scholarship.

      1. Yep.

        The African-Americans I met in China all laughed about it. The Africans were either unconcerned (because it’s “an American word”) or didn’t understand the problem (because it’s not an insult in their country and/or language).

    4. Why isn’t this a textbook example of racial discrimination?

      Because textbooks are not generally written by imbeciles? That literally has nothing to do with racial discrimination.

      He is being punished for using a language other than English

      He isn’t. But if he were, that would, of course, not be racial discrimination.

      and can you imagine the outcry were he to use an equally legitimate word in Spanish and be fired for it?

      Sure: it would be exactly like this, because those situations are identical.

      1. OCR would disagree — I’m too tired to look up the Dear Colleague letters.

        1. Too tired. Also, full of something that EV would not want me to say.

  5. “great pain and upset among students, and for that I am deeply sorry. It is simply unacceptable for faculty to use words in class that can marginalize, hurt and harm ”
    What a lot of bullshit. I though that young people wanted to become warriors.

  6. Professor Volokh:

    A small correction on your title. The proper pinyin for 那个 is nàgè (nah guh). Nèigé (nay guh) is the word for a cabinet (government entity).

    1. Thanks very much — I was going with Prof. Victor Mair’s romanization,

      Grammatically, “nèige 那个” begins as a demonstrative, but it is frequently attenuated to become a pause particle or filler word. It is often uttered many times in succession, thus “nèige nèige nèige…”, and people who have a tendency to stutter may get stuck on it for an embarrassingly long time.

      Is he mistaken on this?

      1. Not at all. As Prof. Mair pointed out elsewhere, the original Chinese expression is in fact 那一个 (nà yi ge), not 那个 (nà ge). But because the three-word expression is cumbersome to pronounce, it’s contracted to (nèi ge) in colloquial speech. Over time, people began associating the pronunciation nèi with 那 directly, such that it has become an accepted pronunciation in dictionaries and is often independently used.

        In this case, the USC professor clearly said (nèi ge), so your title is correct.

        (A comparable English example is “good bye”, originally standing for “god be with ye”, but after a period of contraction and conflation with terms like “good afternoon”, “good bye” is now perceived as two words with standalone pronunciation, and “bye” has taken on a meaning similar to “farewell”.)

        1. Interesting.

          While I’ve heard 那 pronounced as “nei” (as well as nih, nah, and nee) in this context, I’ve never seen it written in pinyin that way. It’s always been nà. I even checked my translation tools, and they all agreed.

          On a whim, however, I tried typing “neige” into Weixin, and it offered up 那个 as an option (though down the list).

          Ya learn something new every day. 🙂

  7. Early in my legal career, in addressing a DC Government panel, I described the budget for processing waivers or permits from a particular regulatory requirement as “niggardly”. It had never until that moment occured to me that this word could be miscontrued as racist. I never used that word in that context again — and that was no problem, because there are plenty of other words that can be used for that purpose. But I wasn’t trying to teach people about a foreign language. This Prof is entitled to a groveling apology from the administration and the award of a non-niggardly stipend.

  8. Understandably, this caused great pain and upset among students

    Understandably? How about “it didn’t really cause great pain or anxiety, and it wouldn’t be understandable if it did”?

    1. Wokeness is a religion. If you have faith, you believe that it caused pain and upset among students, no matter how irrational such a belief might be.

    2. Beat me to it. Understandable to whom? Certainly not me, and certainly not to many outside tightest, navel-gazing, woke circles.

      Also, “We each must grow and learn always to engage respectfully with one another while fostering and exemplifying the knowledge and skills needed to lead and shape our diverse and global world—such as courage, empathy, compassion, advocacy, collaboration, and integrity.”

      By not exposing students to what, evidently, is an extremely common word in the most-spoken language in the world?

  9. Professor Patton should be immediately reinstated and Dean Garrett suspended.

    1. The fact that Dean Garrett finds petty ethnocetric racist monoculturalism, the sort that feels deeply offended when members of another culture speak a language they don’t understand and presumes to judge everyone by their own terms, speaks a lot about Dean Garrett’s bigotry.

      I suggest he take a year off to learn that other languages and cultures exist, something he apparently isn’t aware of.

      Students who aren’t aware of this need to be educated.

      We are no longer in a world where people get to be deeply offended by the Jew who wears a hat when they think a hat shouldn’t be worn, the African-Anerican who wears braids where they think hair should be straight, the African-American who sits int the front of the bus when he’s supposed to sit in the back or tries to enroll in a school he doezn’t belong in, etc. This is no different. The world of navel-gazing ethnocentrism where a self-appointed uberculture gets sole power to judge all others by its standards, and gets to presume its ways and norms are the only possible and the meaning it assigns is the only possible meaning, is over.

  10. This really sounds like anti-Chinese discrimination.

    The claim that it somehow has something to do with African-Anericans seems completely pretextual. A University that wants to discriminate against Chinese people really needs to spend some effort coming up with a more credible pretext than that.

  11. Can we just be blunt for second? When did people turn into such wussies?

    1. When they got a nice paycheck, comfortable food source, and a warm house in which to live without having to do much of anything for the privilege.

    2. When being offended became a source of power.

  12. It’s important to understand that this wasn’t actually, from the university’s standpoint, a stupid mistake.

    I mean, sure, from a rational, non-evil standpoint, it was stupid. But not from the university’s irrationally evil standpoint.

    If you’re enforcing a widely accepted rule concerning conduct you can thoroughly monitor, you can get away with reasonably nuanced rules. But, suppose you’re actually trying to enforce a widely contested rule concerning conduct which usually won’t be accessible to your monitoring?

    In that case, what you really want to do is be over the top and unreasonable, and reject all nuance. Because you want people not just to rationally avoid the conduct you’re trying to prohibit, (If they’re being rational they’ll be aware of when you can’t enforce the rule!) you want them to be positively terrified and phobic about it.

    Being unreasonable and levying over the top punishments for unoffensive conduct is a good way to spread terror and create phobic reactions which will result in people self-censoring even when they’re beyond your reach, and among people who aren’t your allies.

  13. Check this out:

    “In the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game, nagas comprise a variety of similar species of intelligent aberrations with widely differing abilities and alignments. The four most common races of naga are the dark naga, guardian naga, spirit naga, and water naga….

    Banelar Naga – purplish naga that can manipulate magic items with short tentacles around its face; named after their association with the deity Bane
    Bone Naga – a unique type of undead naga
    Bone Naga Template – can be applied to any naga to create an undead creature
    Bright Naga – chaotic evil naga that can mock sorcerous spellcasting
    Brine Naga – powerful naga that resembles a sea serpent
    Dark Naga – lawful evil
    Guardian Naga – lawful good
    Ha-naga – a massive and powerful naga lord, often worshipped by spirit nagas as a god
    Iridescent Naga [6] – chaotic good
    Master Naga – Possesses seven cowled heads, wearing giant gems whose value corresponds with the naga’s age.
    Spirit Naga – chaotic evil
    Water Naga – neutral
    Worm Naga – powerful servants of the deity Kyuss transformed into nagas


    “Most nagas worship the naga creator goddess Shekinester and her son Parrafaire, except for dark nagas, who venerate Sess’Innek.”

    (and let’s not even get started on the Drow)

    1. No one here has yet mentioned the area in India called Nagaland. I got close to there, but–at least at the time–one needed a special permit to visit there.

    2. Not just D&D! Nagas are from Indian mythology originally

  14. I’d say that maybe subject matter like this should be proceeded with a trigger warning, but even that sounds a lot like–never mind.

  15. We will soon be reduced to bar-bar-bar as each culture accuses the other of appropriating its language for nefarious purposes.

    Shakespeare can only weep as the barbarians are in the city.

    1. I am surprised that Chinese students aren’t calling for the Dean’s resignation.

      1. I’m not at all surprised that they’re not calling for their own covert down-grading.

  16. Those who protest Prof. Patton are snowing all of us.

  17. Aside from the fact that it is absurd to contend that mentioning, as opposed to using, “nigger” is racist, it simply is not true that 那個, in either of its two variant pronunciations, sounds very much like it. The two syllables begin with [n] and [g], but the vowels are entirely different. 那個 and “nigger” do not rhyme.

    1. USC need to publish a list of objectionable words to protect its emotionally fragile black students: Niger, Nigeria, Negro, Negra (the last two are Spanish words).

  18. Ha ha ha ha! This is doubly ironic, coming from a state that had a governor called Arnold Schwarzenegger (Black Nigger). The joke is on the USC and on its hapless Business School dean whose racialist paternalism consigns black people to the role of psychologically fragile victims of society!

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