Backlash Follows Use of Racial Slur at NYC Panel

Mia Council ’16

Features Editor 

On Sept. 22, the Smith College Club of New York City hosted a panel on free speech and the liberal arts, moderated by President Kathleen McCartney and attended by about 350 people.  During the event, one of the panelists, Wendy Kaminer, asked the audience what they heard when the phrase “the n-word” was used.  When some audience members responded with the actual word, she repeated it, saying, “You all hear the word [epithet] in your head? See, I said that, nothing horrible happened.”  The two other panelists, Jaime Estrada ’14 and Lauren Duncan, the chair of the Smith psychology department, challenged her assertion.

Alum Sydney Sadur ’14, who was in the audience, recorded the panel and later released the recording and a transcript onto the Internet.  “At the very least I could go and tell other people what was said,” Sadur said in an interview at Smith, explaining that they did not intend to cause controversy needlessly, but wanted to share the events with those who could not attend the panel.  Both Kaminer’s words and McCartney’s non-response to them have caused controversy in the Smith community.  On Sept. 29, McCartney sent an email to the community addressing the events of the panel and pledging “to educate and be educated with respect and humility.”

Kaminer, class of 1971, is a lawyer, an Atlantic correspondent, an author, and according to the Smith College Club of New York City’s webpage on the panel, a “public intellectual.”  This is not the first time Kaminer, a civil libertarian, has commented on free-speech issues.  In 2011, she published an article in the Atlantic which compared restricting fraternity members at Yale from chanting “no means yes, yes means anal” to the indefinite detention of terror suspects, and accused Yale women who took administrative action against sexual harassment of “feminine timidity.”

In a Jan. 2014 Atlantic article, “Women Have a Right to Choose and Protesters Have a Right to Protest,” Kaminer presented a free-speech argument against buffer zones around abortion clinics, writing, “I’m arguing that a woman’s right to…choose and obtain abortions and other reproductive heath services doesn’t diminish her obligation to tolerate extremely irritating, occasionally hysterical, and potentially invasive protesters.”  In another nominally pro-individual-freedom June 2013 article, she wrote, “As I frequently lament, allegedly offensive speech that targets presumptively disadvantaged groups is now routinely labeled ‘verbal conduct’ and considered a civil rights violation by liberal activists.”

In the aftermath of the incident, a group of student leaders of color and allies on campus have been in communication with college administrators, including the president and the dean of the college.  “We’ve been meeting with President McCartney because we reached out to her after the incident,” Fulani Oghoghome ’15, one of the organizers of this year’s Otelia Cromwell Day, explained.  “We’ve been working on programming dialogue and discourse and facilitating long-lasting change at Smith, and not just one-day panels.”

The first official event held to discuss the incident was a panel of three faculty members, Professors Daphne Lamothe, Elizabeth Stordeur Pryor and Kevin Quashie, on Sept. 30.  The panelists spoke on the history of the n-word, its place in the classroom, and larger patterns of anti-black violence to a packed lecture hall and received a standing ovation.

“The humanity of black people is never taken for granted,” Quashie said, asking, “What if the ideal Smith student in our imagination was a black student?”

Pryor, who shared the experience of hearing the n-word from the mouth of one of her Smith students, characterized Kaminer’s interaction with her audience as “a twist on call and response” and pointed out that the presence of over a hundred people at Tuesday’s anti-blackness panel belied Kaminer’s assertion that “nothing horrible happened.”  Pryor went on to share her own experiences with being addressed with racial slurs to illustrate the n-word’s vast potential to harm.

“All that…is not about free speech. Because it’s about whose voices the institution facilitates,” Nandi Marumo ’15, an Afro-American studies major, said, pointing out that it was the responsibility of not only McCartney but every white person in the room to push back against Kaminer’s words.  Sadur’s transcript of the panel is available on the Sophian’s website.

Comments are closed.