The Volokh Conspiracy

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Campus Free Speech

The Great USC Chinese Homonym Panic of 2020

Global reactions, plus a question [UPDATE: which has been answered, see below]. (This post, put up yesterday afternoon, was bumped so people can see the UPDATE.)


I wanted to follow up on this story briefly by linking to some news accounts of the matter—CNN (Jessie Yeung), BBC (Kerry Allen), and the New Zealand Herald; the first two add some material on international reactions, e.g. (from CNN):

The controversy has even made waves on social media across Asia; many in Hong Kong, Taiwan and mainland China responded with disbelief, sympathy for Patton, and a fair bit of ridicule.

Numerous comments on the Chinese social media site Weibo pointed to the Chinese song "Sunshine Rainbow Little White Horse" by Wowkie Zhang, in which nei ge is repeated throughout the chorus. [I listened to it, and it does have an absurd bizarro rap quality to it. -EV]

Other Weibo users echoed American criticisms that this may be an example of cultural sensitivity gone wrong, with a few comments likening the incident to "literary inquisition," the historical Chinese persecution of intellectuals for their writings.

"I've watched the video of the professor's class, and read the email letter his students sent, and the statement from the school," one person wrote on Weibo. "I only want to say, this is ridiculous. It's just too ridiculous."

[UPDATE: This question has been answered, see below.] I also wanted to mention an e-mail that I've been sending since Monday, in various versions, to various people. I haven't gotten any substantive answer, but I thought I'd flag the question:

One thing that nags me about the Patton matter is that all the news accounts report just that the complaint came in an e-mail by "Black MBA Candidates c/o 2022." Is there any information on how many students signed on to the e-mail, or confirmation that they were indeed black MBA candidates in the class of 2022? At least the counterletter from the 100+ students has names, and a few searches on the more unusual names suggest they check out. I just wonder whether this might have been either a prank that the Dean fell for [I assume not, but who knows?], or perhaps a reaction of a very small and unrepresentative group of black students who managed to be seen as speaking for black students generally just by dint of their signature.

Of course, it's also possible that this did come from all, most, or many of the class of 2022 black MBA candidates; and of course my substantive view on the matter doesn't turn on that. But I'm always interested, just as a student of organizational politics, in how these things develop (especially in a situation where a school should recognize that either of the obvious options can create possibly bad publicity, indeed possibly bad worldwide publicity).

If anyone does know the answer, please let me know!

UPDATE 9/12/2020, 2:38 pm: This post did indeed yield an answer, which appears to be that the complaint was signed by all the black MBA students in Prof. Patton's class, plus some white students—I much appreciate the information, which helps show the pressure under which the Dean was.

But I continue to think that the Dean reacted the wrong way to that pressure; indeed, the number of complainers just shows how serious a problem there is here. Apparently a considerable number of future businesspeople, who are going to a leading MBA program, are in a position where they seem to be bitterly offended (in their words, had their "mental health" "affected") by a word that many of them will likely have to hear on many occasions in their business life, if they ever visit a Chinese-speaking country, work around Chinese speakers who might speak casual Chinese to each other, or deal with Chinese clients, customers, or contractors who might do the same. The BBC story points out that this has at times yielded fights:

In July 2016, a fight broke out on the subway in the city of Southern Guangzhou, after a black man heard a Chinese man saying na-ge and mistook it for the N-word.

Footage went viral online showing the black man slapping the Chinese commuter and shouting "you dare try that again" and "never say that again"

More recently, in April this year, Taiwanese news website UDN reported that two men nearly came to blows on the island outside a restaurant over the same misunderstanding.

It's the job of our educational system to teach students not to react this way, either with fisticuffs or deep offense/trauma/mental injury/psychological injury, to a simple accidental homonym. It is not, as I understand human psychology, a difficult task. It is something that many American blacks who study Chinese apparently learn without great difficulty (see, e.g., and It is something that people who speak multiple languages routinely learn (and have to learn). It is well within the power of a business school to teach. It is not, however, the path that the USC Business School seems to have chosen.