AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Our sentences are peppered with words that we use to fill short silences - words like um (ph) or uh (ph). Well, a professor at the University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business offered his communications class an example of one of those kinds of words from the Mandarin language. But it sounded a lot like the N-word. And now as NPR's Leila Fadel reports, the white professor is at the center of a controversy.
LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: It started with a letter signed Black MBA candidates class of 2022 to the school's administration after professor Greg Patton used this example of filler words in his communications course.
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GREG PATTON: Like in China, the common word is that - that, that, that, that. So in China, it might be nei-ge, nei-ge, nei-ge, nei-ge.
BRITTANY: At first, I was shocked because I was listening, and I was like, wait. Did he say what I think he said? And then he said it a couple more times.
FADEL: That's Brittany, a graduate student involved in the letter of complaint that questioned Patton's intent. It said his example showed a lack of tact, racial awareness and empathy. She's only using her first name because she's worried about backlash. The complaint is at the center of a national uproar around inclusion and how far is too far when striving for equity for people who are made to feel marginal. Brittany never thought this would become a national conversation, let alone a bit on "The Daily Show."
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TREVOR NOAH: If that word nei-ge is a word in Chinese, then, well, Chinese people just have to find another word.
RONNY CHIENG: What? No. No. [Expletive] that, Trevor.
FADEL: Her issue isn't with the Mandarin word, and she says she didn't want it to become a Black versus Chinese issue. She just didn't want to hear what sounded like a painful racial slur in her class taught in English by a non-Mandarin speaker.
BRITTANY: He's a white American. He knows what it sounds like, right? So it was kind of like - it was distasteful because you know what it means to people. You know what it sounds like. And you just didn't care how it would come off to the Black students in your class.
FADEL: After the complaint, Patton agreed to pause teaching the course. He wrote a letter of apology. In it, he said it was his intent to be inclusive of other cultures. He told NPR he spent 20 years in China.
PATTON: I just never connected the example in Mandarin to any English words. And I - it's - never once thought - and I never would use anything that would in any way hurt a student.
FADEL: Ninety-four alumni, most of them ethnically Chinese, wrote to the administration in support of the professor. It compared the decision to pause Patton's teaching to McCarthyism and China's Cultural Revolution. A national petition in support of Patton has thousands of signatures. Angeline Pan speaks Mandarin, is an alum and wrote to the dean.
ANGELINE PAN: It just felt like, in an effort to be anti-racist, another group of students were made to feel a little marginalized.
FADEL: She says it's an ethnocentric view.
PAN: Growing up, I've always been cognizant that the word that in Chinese does sound like a racial slur in English. And so when I was out with my parents, you know, I would try to talk to them and be like, you know, we should be a little more aware of how we're using that.
FADEL: But she says you can't expect people not to use a word as common as that in another language. The Instagram account Black At USC accused the administration of mishandling the situation and said now this would be used to gaslight Black students voicing, quote, "actual racist actions and microaggressions." Patton says he's used the example for years because Mandarin's the most common language in the world. The first time any student flagged it, he says, was just before the complaint.
PATTON: When I first heard that one student was hurt, you know, my heart sank. My stomach was down on my knees.
FADEL: He was swapping the example out for a Portuguese term. He says he feels like he's wrongly become the target of much deeper issues.
PATTON: There's been deep racial problems at USC. There's deep racial inequalities in the United States, social and socioeconomically. And this is where there's that one point, that one thing that just kind of - it brings to the surface all this frustration.
FADEL: Frustration at all the unaddressed inequities at college campuses and in the country.
Leila Fadel, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF FRENCH 79'S "BETWEEN THE BUTTONS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.