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Why black graduates of the USC Marshall School of Business may start finding it hard to get international jobs

Back in January 2016 Victor Mair, professor of Chinese at the University of Pennsylvania, started an interesting discussion in the blog “Language Log” about a common Chinese word that sounds like a racial insult in English. Professor Mair wrote,

As soon as I read “a phrase that sounds uncannily like the N-word” in the first paragraph, I knew exactly what my colleague’s friend was talking about. The Chinese grad student was saying “nèige 那个 (that)”.

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. Even individuals who are not actually stutterers may have an excessive addiction to such words.

That guy Mair must have a time machine. Scroll forward four years to 2020. Inside Higher Education reports,

Professor suspended for saying a Chinese word that sounds like a racial slur in English.

In a controversial decision, the University of Southern California replaced a professor of business communication with another instructor in one of his classes for saying a Chinese word that sounds like an English slur.

Late last month, Greg Patton, the professor, was teaching a lesson on “filler words” in other languages — think “err,” “um” or “like” in English — in his master’s-level course on communication for management.

“Taking a break between ideas can help bring the audience in,” Patton said, according to a recording of one of the Zoom course sections and a transcription that appeared next to him on screen. “In China,” for instance, he continued, “the common pause word is ‘that that that.’ So in China it might be ne ga, ne ga, ne ga.”

Patton, who has worked in China but is not a scholar of Chinese, did not warn students that 那个, or ne ga, (alternatively spelled nà ge and nèige) sounds something like the N-word — which it does. And some or all of the Black students across three sections of the course were offended by what they’d heard. So they wrote a letter to the dean of the Marshall School of Business, Geoffrey Garrett, among others, describing Patton as insensitive and incapable of teaching the three-week intensive communications course.

Whereupon one would expect to read that the University of Southern California told them that anyone above the age of ten should know that words which are harmless in one language but rude in another are ubiquitous, and that an intensive course on business communications that left out mention of such words would be a con. That’s the English meaning of “con”, not the French one.

“Whereupon one would expect…”, wrote I, sounding dead posh. Who was I kidding, this is 2020. What actually happened was this:

… Garrett, dean of the business school, sent students an email saying that Patton was being replaced as instructor of the course, effective immediately.

“It is simply unacceptable for faculty to use words in class that can marginalize, hurt and harm the psychological safety of our students,” Garrett wrote. 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.”

If the students’ “psychological safety” is harmed by the knowledge that unfortunate cross-linguistic homophones exist, maybe “business communication” is not the best subject for them. Business often involves meeting foreigners, who at any moment might forget who they are talking to and speak their own language. Even in America one is not safe from people who speak other languages!

While the change was presumably applauded by those students who urged action against Patton, his effective suspension from teaching the course angered many other students and alumni.

One petition for Patton’s reinstatement with thousands of signatures says, “For him to be censored simply because a Chinese word sounds like an English pejorative term is a mistake and is not appropriate, especially given the educational setting. It also dismisses the fact that Chinese is a real language and has its own pronunciations that have no relation to English.”

Ninety-four Marshall alumni, many of whom are Chinese and now live in China, wrote their own letter to the dean and other administrators, expressing support for Patton.

“All of us have gained enormous benefit from the academic leadership of Prof. Patton. His caring, wisdom and inclusiveness were a hallmark of our educational experience and growth at USC and the foundation of our continued success in the years following,” the named alumni wrote.

Moreover, they said, “We unanimously recognize Prof. Patton’s use of ‘na ge’ as an accurate rendition of common Chinese use, and an entirely appropriate and quite effective illustration of the use of pauses. Prof. Patton used this example and hundreds of others in our classes over the years, providing richness, relevance and real world impact.”

After a gap of four years, Professor Mair wrote an update of his 2016 post in the context of Greg Patton’s dismissal: “That, that, that…”, part 2.

It is well worth a read. It quotes the full text of the grovelling letter to students written by Dean Geoff Garrett, a copy of which should be printed out and kept in your medicine cabinet should need arise for a quick-acting emetic.

This comment by “Twill” resonated with me:

I suppose it is “unacceptable to use words that marginalize”, but perfectly acceptable to marginalize every other language on this planet by insisting that any words that might arbritrarily offend English speakers should be stricken from the dictionary, no matter what they actually mean or are used. I fail to see how we can “engage respectfully with one another while fostering and exemplifying the knowledge and skills needed to lead and shape our diverse and global world” if we don’t extend the courtesy of letting other languages speak for themselves.

And what’s the betting that these people, who demand their delicate ears be protected from the sounds of the most spoken language in the world, call Trump voters “hicks” and mock their supposed provincialism?

This will have a predictable effect on the value of a USC Marshall MBA. Imagine you are the CEO of an international company. You seek to fill an executive position that requires the postholder to move confidently between Western and Chinese business environments. Are you going to go for the candidate from a school where students are taught honestly about the potential pitfalls of cross-cultural communication, or the one from the USC Marshall School of Business who has only been fed the Disney version? The issue is not limited to that one word 那个, or to the Chinese language. It is about whether a potential employee can cope outside the bubble of an “elite” US academic institution.

And of course the bad effect on a candidate’s chances will be reinforced if the candidate is black, whether or not they personally had anything to do with this affair. No need to assume the potential employer is racist. They simply will prefer not to hire someone who has been primed to freak out when a Chinese colleague says the equivalent of “like, er, you know” for a word on the tip of their tongue.

31 comments to Why black graduates of the USC Marshall School of Business may start finding it hard to get international jobs

  • Rich Rostrom

    The most spoken language in the world is English.

    Well, let’s define our metric. Spoken in a given year (?) by the most different people, or spoken most often (i.e. percentage of words spoken by people).

    English is spoken and understood by the most people in the world. It is the common language of just about every international activity. For example, aviation operations.

    It is the language in common of any two people far more than any other language.

    I watch Euro cop shows. I have seen:

    Swedish narcs busting an Estonian drug courier with “Police! Freeze!” – then negotiating with him in English for a lead to his boss.

    A Norwegian cop who has trailed a suspect to Germany saying to a German cop “I came away not fully dressed today” – meaning he needs to borrow a gun.

    A few years ago, I read that the major French telecom company Alcatel had adopted English as its language for all corporate HQ operations

    I have visited hundreds of websites that have a version and an English version. Sometimes French or Spanish or Arabic too, but always English.

    I’m watching the 2019 World Fencing Championships from Budapest: the announcer speaks in English.

    English is the common “official language” of numerous multi-lingual countries, especially where the use of a predominant local ethnic group’s language would offend other ethnic groups.

    However, it arguable that these “official” uses represent a minority of speech, which is predominantly personal discourse in local languages. So another language might be most frequently spoken.

    On yet another hand – “Chinese” is not a single language: Hokkien, Cantonese, Fujianese, and other regional forms are spoken by large portions of the population.

    While most of these people also speak Mandarin (the “official” language), again it is arguable that they use Mandarin only as needed, normally relying on their regional form.

    I think, when all factors are taken into account, English comes in first.

  • Ferox

    And, for a counterpoint to the above comment, I assert that even if the Professor actually had been using the racial slur his Chinese word sounded like (rather than the Chinese homonym with the innocuous meaning), that still would not be sufficient reason to bar him from teaching. Lighten up, Francis.

    Particularly since it is highly likely that all of the “offended” students use and hear that word used many times each day, without taking any offense whatsoever. This offendedness is a race-based phenomenon rooted in the ethnicity of the speaker rather than the content of the speech; in that way it is rather similar to a race-mob attack.

  • I know a very senior & serious person at a Fortune 500 company who told me he would not hire anyone from an Ivy League university who graduated in the last 15 years. He went to an Ivy League university.

  • I think, when all factors are taken into account, English comes in first.

    What does that even mean?

  • The African nation whose name no one in the USA dares speak…

    It would be funny if it wasn’t pathetic.

  • Ferox

    ¿De qué color es el carbón? Lo siento, pero no puedo responder sin cometer un crimen de odio.

    It would be funny if it wasn’t pathetic.

    Not to worry, it can be both at the same time.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    I understand what Rich Rostrom is saying, Perry. He means that the relative number of English speakers may in fact be greater than the number of Chinese (in the sense of Mandarin/Putonghua) speakers, depending how you count. He could well be right; the PRC probably lies about how many of its citizens actually speak Mandarin to any decent level, as it lies about everything else.

    But I don’t think the question affects the point I was making, which is that vast numbers of people say “nèige, nèige, nèige” many times a day.

  • The same people who pretend to be offended by a white professor explaining 那个 will walk round the houses to defend or ignore actual Chinese racial oppression – partly because the comparison might make the things they exploit whining about seem not micro-aggressions but pico-aggressions even in their own eyes.

    One of the very very much lesser oppressions (the Chinese having so few to oppress) is the mainland Chinese attitude to black people. Any black person in mainland China who asks a local for the typical Chinese opinion of the black race should be glad if the local first responds with a polite, hesitant um, ah, um, instead of forthrightly returning a less-trigger-warned frank and factual answer.

  • Rob

    It is surprising and ironic that the most left-wing organisations in the world (American academia) appear to have to employment protections at all.

  • […] the blog “Language Log” about a common Chinese word that sounds like a racial insult in English.Read MoreMy RSS […]

  • Doc

    Jesus, nobody tell them about Darly toothpaste.

  • Steve T.

    Does this mean that Naga Munchetty will be banned from our screens? Please!

  • AlfromChgo

    Wait until the racist nitwits find out about Italian…

  • bobby b

    Listen to rap. Or even just listen to blacks speaking to one another.

    Clearly, the mere hearing of “ni**er” isn’t what’s “harming” black listeners. It’s contextual. It’s not that it’s unsayable, it’s just that YOU can’t say it but WE can.

    Which means you have to look past the hearing of the word to it’s speaker. The harm isn’t organic to the receiver of the sound – it is derived from the speaker’s identity.

    And if that speaker is speaking Mandarin – and uttering, by coincidence, a homophone for “ni**er” – then the harm never occurs. Just the faux outrage, the looking-for-advantage.

    (If you can say it, then the rest of us can say it too, dearie. Sorry.)

  • Mr Ed

    But was the prof. saying ‘nèige 那个’ with attitude?

  • bobby b

    Ha! One of my kids gave me the NWA “Straight Outa Compton” CD as a gag gift – I grew up in Compton – and my lefty mom asked me what NWA stood for. Scandalous!

    (ETA: And then I played it for her. Things just went downhill from there.)

  • Katy Hibbert

    “It is simply unacceptable for faculty to use words in class that can marginalize, hurt and harm the psychological safety of our students,

    It seems a good way of weeding out students whose IQ is in double figures.

    Years ago some American official used the word “niggardly”, and a whole bunch of depthlessly ignorant pearl-clutchers took offence.

  • Kalashnikat

    Voldemort…there…I said it.

  • Clearly, the mere hearing of “ni**er” isn’t what’s “harming” black listeners. It’s contextual. It’s not that it’s unsayable, it’s just that YOU can’t say it but WE can.

    Giving the word ‘nigger’ such power was never a good idea, but then as you observe, the contextual use indicates the (entirely successful) effort to control other people’s language. I mean FFS, that you feel you have to use ni**er in a discussion is an astonishing indication of how complete that victory has been.

  • bobby b

    Actually, Perry, it was a measure of how fucking polite I am that I left it to your choice as to whether you want that word to pop Samizdata up in the google searches. Not my place, man. Just being a good guest.


  • lucklucky

    They are tools, mind connections for social supremacist power.

  • Fraser Orr

    Is it just me, or does anyone else find it ironic, based on my pathetic high school French, that the French word for snow is also neige, which, ironically, is usually white.

  • Mikesixes

    It’s a common logical fallacy: argumentum ad homonym.

  • Good one, Mikesixes (September 14, 2020 at 4:14 am) – I shall use that. 🙂

    Your concern is needless, bobby b (September 13, 2020 at 10:51 pm) – over here, no-one dares do such searches 🙂 – and I’m not sure that serve-only-on-request comments would be reliably found even if they did. But if you were concerned the autobot might hold your comment in moderation till Natalie cleared it, that would be (sadly) understandable.

  • Eric

    And some or all of the Black students across three sections of the course were offended by what they’d heard.

    No they weren’t. You can’t get to a school like Penn if you’re too stupid to understand the context on something like this. These students saw an opportunity to exercise power and they took it, either in the enjoyment of power for its own sake or because they decided bullying this poor guy would be an amusing diversion.

  • Nullius in Verba

    “It’s a common logical fallacy: argumentum ad homonym.”

    Excellent! 😀

  • And then there is argumentum ad baculum, which translates to “I’ll hit you with this stick if you don’t fall in line.” The students were using this, as much as any other argumentum. I’ve been in that sort of situation, where nothing you can say is acceptable (and neither is silence).

  • Jonathan Bailey

    “……. harmless in one language but rude in another…” e.g.; “Belgium.” 🙂

  • Paul Marks

    In China they do not say, other than as a joke, “Diversity is our strength”. Thousands of yeas before Marxism the Han understood that unity (not diversity) is strength. Other groups they either assimilated or killed – and then denied even existed (there were Indo Europeans) and others in parts of what is now China). And modern sub

    Yes Mao was a Marxist – but he was NOT a Frankfurt School Marxist (any more than Stalin was).

    The present rulers of China have rejected the economic side of Marxism – keeping only the principle of Leninist dictatorship.

    Their aim is simple – world domination And they will achieve it. The “white leftists” (there is an insulting term in Chinese that means “white leftist”) will help with their own enslavement – will fall over themselves to help the People’s Republic of China dominate.

    “But Paul – President Trump will stop them”.

    President Trump does not really even control the American government – and what influence he does have when he is buried under MILLIONS of fake mail in ballots.

    The Democrats and the Corporations are not even hiding their intent to rig the election – and they both will fall under their faces to serve China.

    Hollywood and the Silicon Valley companies have been serving China for years.

    And black people?

    The PRC does not think highly of black people.

    “We will fight – we will free ourselves!” Like the black gentleman addressing the recent march on Washington – who insisted that Lincoln did NOT free the slaves “we freed ourselves! we crushed the slave masters!” (the gentleman knew this was true because he had seen it in a Hollywood film – and the crowd agree with him and cheered).

    Good luck with that – against people who do not have “white guilt” indeed think that it is a stupid joke.

    “You are being insensitive – we protest and demand you be fired”.

    The People’s Liberation Army would not be impressed – and they are not known for mercy for rioters and looters. Indeed the PRC uses people for SPARE PARTS for much lesser crimes.

    And the magic word RACIST?

    Leninist dictatorship or not – the PRC is not scared of being racist, not at all. It has no problem, at all, with being racist.

  • Paul Marks

    The ignorance goes back at least to the 1960s – to those fools giving Clenched Fist Communist salutes and shouting “Black Power!” – no one ever told them that Karl Marx regarded black people as subhuman. They (like Paul Robeson ad co before them – all the way back to the educated lunatic W.E.B. Du Bois – Harvard Doctorate) believed that Marxism meant “freedom”- but the only freedom the Marxist powers they served would have given them is a bullet in the back of the head (the second they were no longer useful).

    And then there was the young Kentucky boxer (before he started making up stories of Jim Crow in certain stores in Louisville that did NOT have Jim Crow in the dates he stated) – he changed his name from Cassius Clay because this was “just some slave owner”.

    Cassius Clay spent his life fighting slavery – with firearms and his bowie knife, he killed pro slavery people (who were trying to kill him) with his that knife. He had privately owed artillery which he used to defend his property against slave owners.

    So who did did the young boxer admire?

    “One of our people – I am going to change my name to one of our people”.

    So the young boxer changed his name to that of a man who was known for being very PALE (even among Arabs), who was picked out in a crowd by how white he was.

    The man was also a slave trader (to his dying day) and he regarded black people as inferior calling them “raisin heads” and claiming they looked like Satan.

    But none of this was taught in American schools and universities even in the 1960s (let alone now).

    The desire to make friends with everyone, by flattering them, had already eaten the heart out of the West.

    The Chinese are CORRECT to despise us.

    At least since the 1960s Western culture has been dominated by self hatred and by insane flattery of foes.

    It is NOT a race thing – as all the races in modern Western nations know nothing. They are equal in their ignorance.

    The average Antifa Marist fool is white, from a well off family and “educated”.

    Perhaps the West will survive – we shall just have to struggle on and hope for either Divine Intervention or incredible good luck.

    Depending on your view of the universe.

  • Bizarre how often ‘educated’ means ‘knows almost nothing about real world’