Content warning: This story contains the mention and use of racial slurs and discusses topics of racism.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article stated that Dinah PoKempner was general counsel for Human Rights Watch. As of April 11, she is no longer employed by HRW.
In a class discussion on hate speech in legal proceedings, Dinah PoKempner, an adjunct instructor in the Institute for the Study of Human Rights, repeatedly said the N-word while sharing an anecdote with her class.
PoKempner, who was general counsel for Human Rights Watch until April 11, centered the April 1 class around the “comparative legal treatment of hate speech,” and discussions touched upon the propriety of legal action against hate speech. Over the course of an anecdote meant to illustrate a broader point in the class, PoKempner explicitly used the N-word several times, while laughing and switching between voices. Students unsuccessfully attempted to discuss with PoKempner why her language had crossed classroom boundaries and have since reported the incident with multiple Columbia offices. The incident comes amid national conversations around race and higher education.
When PoKempner felt that the example of a European journalist’s prosecution for an interview conducted with racists would be difficult to conceptualize for her students, she pulled from a personal anecdote that had taken place in the United States. She used the N-word as she repeated dialogue from Ku Klux Klan leaders, a lawyer, and her own colleague.
“To help them understand how the issue might look in a US context, I related something I once observed, where a lawyer for the Southern Poverty Law Center, deposing a member of the Ku Klux Klan in a civil rights case, tried to get the witness to open up by leaning into a down-home accent and using the n-word repeatedly in questioning,” PoKempner wrote in a statement to Spectator. “Unfortunately, the voices of the lawyer and his deponent were graven in my memory, and I did not edit as I spoke, using the original racist term. Students were understandably shocked, and they explained eloquently and patiently why they objected to use of the word.”
Many students in the class found PoKempner’s anecdote tangential to the broader point of the class and were shocked by her repeated use of the N-word—over the course of the minute-and-a-half-long story, PoKempner used the N-word 11 times.
Youdane Maman-Toure, CC ’21, one of 16 students enrolled in the class, struggled to process what was happening at first, but became more “blatantly angry” toward PoKempner’s response as students tried to explain to PoKempner how she had made the class uncomfortable.
“As a Black person, as soon as she said ‘Klan meeting’ I kind of tuned it all out to be honest. And I remember vaguely hearing the word, but it wasn’t until someone pointed it out like ‘What is happening?’ where I was like ‘Oh my God, that did just happen,’” Maman-Toure said. “She kind of went into character when she said it, she put on an accent and everything and was laughing about the situation and also tried to defend her colleague because her whole point in saying it was that her colleague, when he leaned over and said, ‘Don’t you just love it when they say the N-word?’ … wasn’t using the word maliciously.”
PoKempner continued teaching for 20 minutes, until students asked that she address what had taken place. A class discussion ensued in which PoKempner asked how many students in the class had been called a slur before and whether such incidents had taken place over the last three years or at Columbia.
“She was basically saying, I’m sure it’s all been terrible and that’s all been hate speech, and just tried to keep the conversation academic when she’s the one who veered from that to begin with,” Maman-Toure said. “She continued to ignore what we were trying to say and trying to placate us.”
After PoKempner and the students agreed that the discussion had become unproductive, the class went on a break, during which PoKempner forgot to mute herself. She was overheard relating what had taken place to someone else, repeating the N-word again. According to Maman-Toure, she was heard arguing that “the academic environment allows for this language.”
“It was pretty obvious that she didn’t know she had left her mic on, from the first moment she said, ‘Oh, I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.’ She was talking with a male voice in the background. She explained the situation to him and in explaining the situation she repeated the word and … he said, ‘This can get really big,’ and she said, ‘I know,’ and they laughed about it,” Avery Beard, CC ’22, said.
After the class ended, many of the students who had been present met over a Zoom call to discuss next steps. Their first priority was downloading a recording of the class to submit to the Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action. Since then, they have filed with the EOAA, Office of Multicultural Affairs, and have penned a letter to the Institute for the Study of Human Rights.
According to the University’s faculty handbook, an “important part” of a faculty member’s duties is to “engage their students in discussions about issues that are contentious and emotionally charged” and “to challenge them to reexamine deeply held beliefs,” but such endeavors must be completed with “civility, tolerance, and respect for ideas that differ from their own.” When faculty fail to uphold these tenets, students are encouraged to meet with the faculty member and seek resolution or undergo grievance procedures within their respective schools.
Bias and discrimination complaints are filed through the EOAA, which can provide official investigations when students are willing to come forward and identify professors or for informal proceedings such as mediation.
In instances of classroom harassment—racial, sexual, or otherwise—the power imbalance that exists between students and a professor is a pervasive problem that prevents students from holding faculty members accountable. Faculty often have the benefit of the University’s protection, while students find their grades and instruction hanging in the balance as they pursue action against instructors.
“I’m not sympathetic to the institution in general when it tries to kind of just protect faculty at the expense of students. It can damage relationships, and it can infringe on students. It can infringe in a way that’s beyond disrespectful and really degrading to students,” said Jenny Davidson, a professor of English and comparative literature.
PoKempner’s students’ formal complaints remain under review, but on Tuesday, students received an email from Elazar Barkan, director of the Institute for the Study of Human Rights. Barkan acknowledged students’ concerns about their abilities to attend class meetings and submit remaining assignments and exams, noting general “anxiety about the course as a result of this episode.” Inga Winkler, director of undergraduate studies for the program, will be overseeing the grading of the remaining coursework and calculation of final grades. PoKempner will still hold class this Thursday, but Winkler will also be available on Thursday at a separate time for closing discussions.
The question of when to explicitly use racial slurs occurs more frequently in departments, such as English or history, that are more likely to rely on primary texts that include racial slurs. This semester, Davidson revamped the introduction to the major class for the English department. She was moved to diversify the class’s curriculum to be “tightly themed around the Black Lives Matter movement” after the protests that took place last summer in response to the police’s killings of countless Black individuals. Because Davidson had previously not spent extensive time addressing race in an academic context, she was very intentional around her planning of the course, which includes several primary texts from Black authors who use the N-word.
“It’s a little nerve wracking, frankly, when you’re—as I am—a middle-aged white lady who doesn’t spend a lot of my professional time thinking and talking and writing about race, " she said. “And I feel that that’s not a good reason to avoid taking on the subject matter. But I was very, very aware that I needed to, you know, brush up on best practices, make sure that I was using appropriate language.”
Maman-Toure emphasized how the power imbalance between student and faculty is furthered when race is factored in, as PoKempner is a white woman teaching a class with multiple Black students and students of color.
“I think living within the society that she does and the body that she does—being a white one—it’s very easy for her to uphold foundations of racism while also forgiving herself for not being blatantly racist,” Maman-Toure said. “Just her ignorance to even say that word to begin with but then also hearing my classmates call her out and refusing to hear them is one thing but then hearing myself and my Black classmates speak and refusing to hear us is another. We’re the ones who are affected by her use of the word and her refusal to acknowledge that.”
In recent years, academics at several universities have come under fire for racially insensitive language. At Soas University of London, students are currently calling for the university’s director to resign after a meeting where he used the word while answering a question about professors using the term in classes. In 2018, students walked out of Princeton professor Lawrence Rosen’s class on hate speech after he used the N-word multiple times—he later canceled the course. Last fall, Central Michigan University fired Tim Boudreau, a tenured professor and chair of the journalism department, after he “created a hostile learning environment through his reckless use of the N-word in his instruction.”
Many arguments in the defense of incidents involving racial slurs have hinged upon a professor’s right to academic freedom. According to Davidson, however, the academic freedom argument often arises to defend “inexcusable behavior.”
“If you look at the actual cases of faculty who are calling for academic freedom to defend something they’ve said, it’s not a very attractive category anymore, right?” she said. “I don’t feel personally a strong intellectual need for a rigorous defense of so-called academic freedom. Given that right now, what that seems to cover so often is just racist language, anti-trans language, forms of language that come more under abuse.”
Samuel Roberts, an associate professor of history and of sociomedical sciences in the Mailman Public School of Health and a senior faculty member in the Institute for Research in African-American Studies, noted the distinction between academic freedom as it applies to what faculty “say as researchers and scholars versus how [they] behave and what [they] say in a classroom.”
“The public debate regarding an instructor’s use of demeaning language too often and incorrectly centers on so-called ‘First Amendment rights.’ I am not a constitutional lawyer, so I actually do not know what ‘right’ I or any other instructor would have to use such words. But that’s not the point. My choice not to use them isn’t because of lack of clarity about my own speech rights. Mine is a professional and ethical choice. I was hired to teach, and my actions in the classroom should be informed by strategies to engage and encourage my students,” Roberts wrote in a statement to Spectator.
Some concerns around regulating language in academic spaces are based in a fear that too much supervision would serve to hinder students’ ability to engage with primary texts and source material that might include offensive language.
“I also think it’s important for students to see how very, very challenging it would be to build a righteous system that wasn’t strangulating for everybody, including students, that would kind of get rid of most of the problematic behavior while still leaving freedom,” Davidson said.
Julia Faye-Munoz, GS ’22, was the first student to speak up about the classroom boundaries PoKempner had crossed. For Faye-Munoz, PoKempner’s use of the N-word has called into question the broader discussions on hate speech that took place during the class.
“It’s made me question the ways that our professor has presented some of this information and what her take on the human rights field might be and how that kind of impacts the integrity of what we’re learning,” Faye-Munoz said. “What it makes me feel is definitely a level of concern and frustration because this is a pretty big and serious thing to say and very insensitive thing to say and for a professor of her experience and high esteem both at Columbia and in general at her career at Human Rights Watch—it’s unacceptable this kind of discrepancy.”
Many students in the class underscored that it was not the story itself that was cause for widespread concern, but rather the professor’s decision to explicitly use the N-word when it could have been substituted, as well as the almost jovial tone that was used in relaying the story.
“I understand how it fits under hate speech and no one was saying that we didn’t want to talk about racism and hate speech. We were just saying that there was no space for her to say that word in any context,” Maman-Toure said. “I also remember her saying that telling people that they can’t say the N-word in its full capacity is giving the word more power and giving racists more power, without acknowledging that the word does hold more power when it’s coming out of the mouth of white people and people that look like her.”