Open to the public: Students hash out use of the n-word at University of Louisville

By Rae Hodge–

At the center of the story was the slur heard round the ‘Ville.

A white, university-employed student, with a less-than-private Facebook account, referred to hip hop as “n*****bop” in a status update about artist Kendrick Lamar. Someone took a screenshot.

Spring break or not, online backlash against both the girl and the university was swift and severe. U of L twitter users swarmed the hashtag, lambasting the girl with questions and complaints, calling for immediate action from the university. The girl went on to use the word, and a number of its variations, again and again. The outrage grew, the crowd swelled.

The girl shut down all of her accounts. No official statements were released.

Although listed online as a Student Ambassador to U of L’s campus tutoring program, Resources for Academic Achievement (REACH), Professor Dale Billingsley says that the student had not been employed by REACH since Dec. 2012.

Billingsley is the vice provost over undergraduate affairs at the U of L and over REACH. He says that the student remains employed by the university via a Federal Work Grant, and has been moved to a position in the Office of Enrollment Management.

After a tense waiting period, the campus took action last Wednesday. The U of L Diop Society, members of the Pan-African studies department, the Vice Provost of Diversity and International Affairs, and a number of student leaders partnered with The Cultural Center. They created an event for the Let’s Talk Luncheon Series and invited the public to participate in an open discussion panel about the tweet and the wider use of the n-word at U of L. They called it “The N*****bop Forum”.

They chalked the campus sidewalks with advertisements and tweeted the details. Some students received extra credit to attend. There was a sign-in sheet. There was free pizza.

The Louisville Cardinal sent writer Xavier Bleuel to cover the event.

Public event turned internal investigation

When Bleuel arrived and began gathering information, he introduced himself to Vice Provost of Diversity and International Affairs, Dr. Mordean Taylor-Archer. Taylor-Archer told Bleuel that while he was welcome to attend and listen, he was not to report on the events or discussion. Archer-Taylor also told Bleuel that the public discussion forum was an “internal investigation”. 

Bleuel, a new writer, exited the forum, reported his experience to his editor, who then relayed it to this reporter. In a follow up interview Taylor-Archer said, “It’s not an investigation, but what we had agreed to when we were putting on the forum was that it would be a discussion among the people who were there and there would be no press coverage. And so that’s why I said that to the student.”

This incident marks the first time that any event of the Let’s Talk Luncheon series has ever attempted to quiet the student press. Taylor–Archer explained how she came to her decision.

“This issue was more volatile than any of the other issues that we’ve had in the past

that we have covered, and it has been spun,” said Taylor-Archer. “Given the volatility of this discussion, I made that decision and so, you know, I stand behind it.”

“The Let’s Talk Luncheon has been (open to student press) and given the nature of this one that it was decided — and I was a part of that decision making — that we did not have press coverage of this event.”

Taylor-Archer continued, “I don’t know how you want to frame this, but I made a decision because it had already spun out of control. So I said that this would be a discussion, and it would not be covered by press, and that’s what I, we, had made that was decided prior to even beginning the discussion. So that’s what I said to the student when he was there.”

When asked who else was part of that decision-making process, Taylor-Archer said, “Well, when we discussed it- it was the- I had discussed it. And well, ultimately, I take the blame. I take the full responsibility for this decision.”

The press is the public

Phillip Bailey, political editor and news writer for Louisville NPR affiliate station, WFPL, was chosen to moderate the discussion.

Taylor-Archer was asked whether she felt that the choice of the panel’s moderator was consistent with her attempt to exclude student press.

“I do hear what you’re saying,” said Taylor-Archer. “And Phillip was in the role of moderating the panel and not reporting on the issues thereof, and that was an agreement that we had that was made with Phillip.”

When called for comment, Bailey said “I wouldn’t have agreed to do a forum if it wasn’t open.”

“I was approached by Deonte Hollowell and I thought it was interesting and worthwhile discussion,”

he explained. “But I certainly wouldn’t have agreed to do any discussion that wasn’t open to the press. As a member of the press, I take umbrage with anything that bars the press.”

“The press is the public,” said Bailey, “As I told her, I think it’s always best to err on the side of transparency and honesty. In U of L’s history, the biggest mistakes have been the ones shrouded in secrecy.”

Full disclosure: This reporter is an intern at WFPL news.

Dr. Ricky Jones, a professor who attended Wednesday’s forum, is U of L’s director on race relations and inequality. In his office in the Pan-African studies department, he was adamant about the department’s policy. “We’ve got to be open for our students to have those conversations and we’ve certainly got to be open to our student reporting mechanism, which is the Cardinal in this case, being able to have access to and report on those situations,” said Jones.“There’s nothing to hide.”

“We’ve been around this campus for 40 years and we’ve never had an event where we told anybody ‘you couldn’t report on this’.”

“So if it’s Pan African Studies – whether you’re dealing with a faculty member, or majors, or any of our student organizations – we would never tell any media organization that they do not have access or they are not to report on it.”

“If anybody else on this campus– I don’t care who it is– said to a Cardinal reporter, or the Courier Journal, or the New York Times that ‘you are not to report on this’, that is not the stance of the Department of Pan-African Studies.  Nor is it the stance of any group affiliated with the Department of Pan-African Studies. Nor will it ever be the stance of the Department of Pan-African Studies.”

“Whenever you tell someone that they are not to report on something,” said Jones, “it reeks of some kind of tyrannical inclination.  And we don’t function that way.”

Dr. Deonte Hollowell says that while Taylor-Archer “didn’t want this written in the press and sensationalized in the media” her concerns were unwarranted.

Hollowell is the Outreach Coordinator at Black Alliance for Educational Options and a professor in the PAS department who attended the forum. He says that PAS is “always been open for discussions and, as a matter of fact, begging of them. Begging of that from other entities from the university and challenging the students to have freedom and creativity.”

“If you’re asking me if I think more conversations need to be had about ‘n*****bop’,” said Hollowell, “Yes.”

When university spokesperson Mark Hebert returned a call for comment he said, “She made a judgment call, and we’re not going to second guess that decision.”

“She was acting out of concern for a student,” said Hebert, “Dr. Taylor-Archer had concerns about further alienating the student whose actions were the focus of the event.”

May as well have covered it

The Cardinal asked Taylor-Archer if she would like to comment on the proceedings of the forum, and whether she felt they were productive, she said. “Well then, if I’m going on record, and you’re doing this, the student may as well have covered the event.  Do you know what I’m saying? That reason that I said and the reason that I did was that we were not going to have press coverage with this particular event.”

Students and professors who attended the forum spoke openly about the event, and expressed interest in having press coverage at this, and future forums.

Josh Schuschke and Cheyenne Weathers attended and helped organize the event. Schuschke, President of U of L’s Diop Society, is a Pan-African studies major.

“We talked about issues regarding race on campus the history of racist events, and the recent event with the former REACH ambassador, who made comments about Kendrick Lamar’s music, referring to it as ‘n*****bop’,” said Schuschke. “So we had an open dialogue about that and why the n-word is such a volatile word. Some people feel is there a double standard to it. What can we do to further educate people about the use of the word? Who can use the word? Really that type of discussion.”

Weathers, a Pan-African studies and English major, also devotes time to the Diop Society. She said, “I feel like mostly everyone basically was on the same page when speaking about the issue. And we deconstructed the word ‘n*****bop’. What does it really mean? And is it just a negative stereotype about black people, or does it go further on that? And basically, everybody was offended and felt like the word – and when she used it in the context— was unnecessary.”

Jones had a similar take on the panel’s outcome. “The forum was nothing more than a discussion on what was said. What are the implications? There was even, I thought, a very poignant discussion about the use of the word ‘n*****’ and other language. Really, what we’re talking about is in-group language,” said Jones, “There wasn’t anything secretive.”

Individual or Institutional?

For Jones, the panel offered the student body a chance to earnestly discuss a central question about racism on campus. “What we were really clear on with our kids, from the beginning of this, is that you have to be you got to be clear when something like this happens, whether or not it is an individual incident or it’s something that has institutional overtones.”

The incident may have started with a university employee, but Jones said “It was very clear to us that this was something that had nothing to do with the institution. This is not an institutional problem. This is nothing that reflects badly on the University of Louisville, or any unit in the University of Louisville. This is a situation where an individual at best was racially insensitive, at worst might have had some type of racist sentiment. Period.”

“So the discussion today wasn’t about anything wrong with the university of Louisville, because if there is something wrong with the University of Louisville, that incident doesn’t reflect it. It doesn’t indicate it. This was just a discussion, I think, on racially insensitive speech.”

Professor Hollowell disagrees. To him, this occurrence isn’t just a single racist action but exists in a chain of university-related incidents that form an institutional history.

“It’s a society problem. It’s a reflection of what’s going on in the world with this campus being a microcosm of that, and a microcosm of what’s even going on in our city,” he says. “We have to use that conversation to be able to look at the whole picture: the big picture is that racism has existed on this campus and will continue to thrive. It’s not going anywhere—racist sentiment anyway.”

“There’s a history of racialized incidents that I’ve been a part of ever since I was an undergrad here starting in ‘97. Those things are going to continue to happen. But how do we react to them as a community of people who don’t agree?”

Hollowell quickly tallied up a list of events from recent memory, including giveaway of racist t-shirts by Bank One affiliates and repeated campus visits from the Ku Klux Klan.

Hollowell also notes that the student press has not been immune to creeping racist sentiment. He described an editorial cartoon that appeared in The Louisville Cardinal on Oct. 23, 1997.

“The first issue of the Cardinal I ever saw was them hanging – it was Ron Cooper, who was an African American coach.”

The cartoon depicts an angry mob of U of L fans, gathered around a bonfire, dangling an effigy of Cooper, hung by its neck, over the flames. Beneath, a caption reads “U of L Alumni: All fired up for homecoming.”

“And that forced us to create our own black student newspaper,” said Hollowell.

“We have to understand that structural institutional racism is not going anywhere. It’s going to exist pretty much in any American institution. We have to navigate that and we have to understand. And so these conversations are meant to bring better understanding of institutional racism and bring institutional justices to our students,” said Hollowell.

When asked about how whether institutions can be trusted to police themselves for structural injustices, and resolve their own problems internally, Hollowell said “That’s the goal of Diop’S’—not to be the police per se, but we are the Pan-African education group. And any time where there’s an injustice involving black people, or maybe even groups of people, we’re going to integrate ourselves into that.”

“Any time there’s a misunderstanding or a cultural misunderstanding, whether about black and African American people, or a historical misunderstanding, we’re going to be the group that is going to police that. We’re the group that’s going to say ‘Hey, this is wrong, this is right. And let’s understand each other this way.’”

“We never rely on an institution to police themselves to our interest,” said Hollowell.

Teachable Moments

“Basically, it was just a teachable moment,” said Weathers. “In situations like this, what can we do to help this from not escalating further? Is it a two-sided argument? Is it white or black? Or should we just come together and form a different view of things, and a different way of thinking of things when put in a different context?”

When Taylor-Archer was asked whether she had plans to change her policy against barring student reporting on the Let’s Talk Luncheon events, she replied by saying. “Of course, I don’t have a problem with that.”

But are there really two sides to the question of whether white people should use the n-word to describe hip hop?

Schuschke think so. “I’m sure there’s another side to it as we’ve seen online. There were people that supported her on it, but it’s a quiet side. It’s not a side that speaks up in public.”

He leaned into the microphone.

“It’s a very cowardly side,” he said, “that doesn’t feel the need, or doesn’t have the ability, to speak in public about what they really feel.”

“And if they want to keep those sentiments to themselves?” said Schuschke. “We encourage that actually.”





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