Offensive Words/Phrases: Who Should Know Better?

Required reading for any academic is Philip Roth’s “The Human Stain.” In the first few pages an older, tenured professor is “forced to retire.”


There were two students who never were present when he called roll. Even after roll when they would technically just be “late,” they weren’t there. After weeks of this, he called their names one day, found them to be absent still ever yet, and said to the rest of the class—direct quote:

“Does anyone know these people? Do they exist, or are they spooks?”

The truant students, who again this professor had NEVER MET in part as they had NEVER BEEN TO CLASS, happened to be black.

So the professor subsequently was labeled a racist, and fired.

It’s a minor point (yet one still to unpack), but this word in its racist usage is a bit archaic. Websters lists in order the definitions of the noun “spook” as:

1. (informal) a ghost.

2. (informal) a spy.

3. (offensive, dated) a black person

Even doesn’t list the racial slur interpretation first.

In his futile final defense to the dean, the professor argued there was no way when the beginning of the sentence was “Do they exist” that then the natural follow-up would be a racist comment. That the natural follow up instead would be to suggest something that doesn’t exist, something that’s part of the ether, that’s other-worldly. Ghostly. Spooky. [I don’t have the writing abilities of Roth, but that was basically his ill-fated gist.]

Here’s why I think this should be required reading: this book reminds me that anything you say probably will be offensive to someone—whether you intend it to be or not, whether they hear/read your comment or not, whether the words you use have some other meaning you are (un)aware of or not. Someone will take things in a way you never intended, will be offended, possibly will be loud about it, and you will be punished for a crime you didn’t want to or think you were committing. This book scared me so much when I first read it in grad school I wondered if academia were a good fit for me; I feared I wasn’t smart enough to realize all the different meanings of all the words I would use, and that I should just give up now and leave.

How can we keep track of all the offensive words, all of the (at one time)  insensitive terms? We can’t. And quite honestly, we don’t. We pick and choose which slurs slip by unchecked.

Example #1: everywhere I have worked multiple people on staff refer to “the well-ordering principle” as “WOP.” I’ve erased it from others’ boards as I prepare for my own classes. I’ve even seen it in textbooks. Maybe it was my WWII/European family, but when I was growing up that word was as verboten as “the n-word” or “the c-word.” You look up THAT definition today in a dictionary and its sole entry is

(informal, offensive) an Italian or other southern European.

And yet we use it without fear of being labeled a racist, and without fear of early retirement.

Example #2: “stars and bars.” The first time I heard that in a math context was at a middle-school outreach event. I was raised in the South. So when I heard a then-colleague (not that they were fired, just that we don’t work together anymore) say “stars and bars” I honestly was speechless. Later on, I taught some online and even some in-person courses where the texts also used the phrase “stars and bars” to denote a counting technique. But that’s not the primary wikipedia or dictionary entry. The #1 definition in both of those is:

(historical) the flag of the Confederate States of America.

Yet if a discrete mathematician drops that phrase, we don’t think they’re being indiscreet. 

As a hopefully helpful comment to those teaching and thinking about these things: How do I address these terms in class? For the well-ordering principle I tell students, “You will see this in many books and on the internet abbreviated as ‘WOP’. That’s accepted by the mathematical community. I, however, cannot bring myself to say or write that because—fun fact—it’s also a derogatory term. So just be careful: you may literally want to spell it out.”

I say something similar for “stars and bars” but in class I refer to it as “pirates and gold.” And I have had a black student ask me why it’s called “stars and bars” and I told the student the truth: I honestly have no idea.

Back to the greater point: those are just two obvious to me terms that go completely unchallenged and which are by easily verifiable sources like ”the dictionary” still actively considered to be offensive and insensitive. And yet there are moments like the one Roth highlights that are comparatively (note that word: comparatively) less severe but which become reasons for dismissal.

The big question to me though is who should know better? Definitely as the “authority figures” you’d suspect the onus would be on faculty to note any verbal indiscretions. The students perhaps are allowed to still be learning, which leads to my final vignette. While now I rarely write “in the now” about my own teaching, I did have an interaction recently with a student which I thought was funny, charming, actually flattering, and so—God, help me—I shared it on Facebook.

Direct quote:

A former student just came by with calc ii questions. Said her professor was “way too smart” and she just “needed to talk to a human” about this. I think she meant it as a compliment but as a professional nerd…”

Honestly, I thought this was benign. In fact, in posting it I hoped others would find it funny because it kinda is and many of us need a laugh. I also thought it was a compliment. Many of my former students liked this post. And my non-academic friends on Facebook agreed this whole thing was amusing. One who’s known me since I was 17 years old even commented, “Are you sure the student remembered who you are?!”

However, some of my academic friends had a distinct issue with this. One of the more vocal ones opened a thread with “I find this pretty insulting, and I would be sorely tempted not to help this student if I were in your position.” (emphasis added by me)

This subthread continued and went on to discuss the not-so-subtle nuances in math/academic communities of “men are seen as smart” and “women are seen as human, which is somehow the opposite of smart.” How this student beyond misspoke and had maligned me.

First: NOWHERE in my post did I indicate the gender of the calc ii instructor. That was assumed, or as I prefer to think of it, projected. Also, the student did not see me as “not smart.” They came to me specifically for math help, indicating they thought I actually could help. To the student I was both “smart” and “human.” This interpretation by a fellow academic, to me, is a complete over-reaction, as is the suggestion to not help a student trying to understand material. It’s not like she called me “Ms.” instead of “Dr.” (even then, I’d still help her, because helping students–regardless of how I feel about them–is a main part of my job).

Just like Roth’s fictional professor, this real-life student meant no harm. Intent is not an excuse, but it should be used in determining the severity of the crime. So too, should awareness. If you’re completely unaware that your action is wrong, perhaps you should be taken aside for a lesson and given a chance to show that you’ve learned; however, it seems a bit draconian to vilify or eject someone who honestly doesn’t realize they’re doing something wrong. We need to be careful about reading too much into things.

Again I had to think about the expectations listeners have on those speaking. This student is likely 19-years old. She’s new to college, new to adulthood, and—unlike most students in America—she’s also part-military, going through weapons and tactics training and signing up for 4-5 years of active service upon graduation. After a whopping four months of higher-education is she really expected to know the subtleties of academia jargon, how phrases are interpreted, how women (in STEM) are perceived, how biased course evaluations and student comments in general are? Is she expected to know about or to have been exposed to or to inherently care about the issues surrounding diversity or equity? Is she supposed to know enough to recognize when she’s encouraging imposter syndrome, contributing to decades-long passive dialogues dismissing women and minorities? Isn’t this a lot to expect from a person whose idea of a “trigger warning” is a clicking sound followed by the words “aim” and “fire” (#military)?

When I listen to a student, I try my best to take their youth, their minimal exposure to my world and subject, and their probabilistically likely non-academia and/or non-academic desires into account. It is my job as an academic to seek the underlying truth in what is being said, to set aside how something is being said and/or how much it immediately offends me in order to suss-out its true meaning.

And so it’s one thing for us to call each other out on impropriety; (higher) education is our life and our livelihood and it has always been one of the most politically-sensitive sectors. It’s easy enough to argue that Roth’s professor should have known better. But to become vindictive about an undergrad calling a faculty member ‘human’?! Come on.

Words are meant to convey a message, and here is mine: just because a student’s or colleague’s vocabulary isn’t as nuanced as yours, just because they don’t realize your background and your world and how their words could be interpreted as harmful, doesn’t mean they should be ignored or worse labeled as an enemy. Be less reactive, less presumptive, less sensitive; try to understand the true meaning before jumping the gun and lambasting. And recognize that it’s beyond ironic and downright hypocritical for us to huff and puff about others’ words and subtleties when we on our high lexicographical horses self-select when we use offensive language. Because really until or unless we replace phrases like “stars and bars” we are throwing stones from our glass house.

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