Instructor uses racial slur during lecture

Courtesy of Natalie Jones | The slide in question, which was obtained by The Duke last Thursday afternoon.

Alicia Dye | News Editor

Oct. 6, 2022

During a lecture on Black feminism in “Psychology of Gender” Thursday afternoon, the instructor for the course, teaching assistant and third-year Ph.D. student Jennifer Hamann, said a racial epithet while reading a quote from Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I A Woman?” speech.

Students from the course said there was no warning that Hamann was going to say the racial slur, and that it took them off guard.

“When she said it, my friend and I just looked at each other in shock,” said senior Hadia Razzak. “This experience made me super uncomfortable to say the least. I could barely look up at her for the rest of class, let alone pay attention. To be speaking on Black feminism, and then use a word that is so harmful to the Black community is so ignorant.”

According to multiple students who spoke to The Duke and were in class, Hamann justified the use of the word by saying it was “historical language” and that she was using it for “historical purposes.”

Hamann did provide a statement to The Duke. It was the same email Hamann sent to students of the course on Friday evening.

“I’m extremely sorry about the painful word I said in class yesterday. There are many painful words associated with history that should be read but not spoken. I chose to speak one of those painful words, and I wholeheartedly apologize for that choice,” Hamann said. “I take full responsibility. I will be mindful of these painful words in the future, and I’m using this experience as a teachable moment for myself. That said, if anyone would like to talk to me in private about your experience of hearing that word, please feel free to email me.”

According to Gabe Welsch, the university’s vice president of marketing and communications, Hamann will continue to teach the course for the remainder of the semester.

“Hamann has apologized to the class and is taking educational steps to learn from the experience and rebuild trust with her class,” Welsch said. “The Bias Education Response Team is working in their role to provide recommendations and education to assist, for everyone involved. The course will continue and she will remain the instructor.”

Students Natalie Jones and Jaden Chou both submitted reports to the Duquesne’s Bias Education Response Team (BERT) almost immediately after the incident. Chou also emailed the dean of Liberal Arts, the psychology department and the Center for Excellence in Diversity and Student Inclusion.

“I sent the report around 12:30 p.m. that day,” Jones said. “They responded to me around 2:30 p.m., and I have a meeting with them next week.”

Jones said the class was silent after that, and Hamann even got upset at the lack of student responses.

“Nobody wanted to speak after that. After that was said, the entire mood shifted within the classroom,” Jones said. “[Hamann] was asking us questions throughout the class like she normally does, but no one wanted to speak. She was obviously getting huffy with it, but no one wanted to speak in class because the professor had just been racist.”

Chou and Razzak were the only two students to speak up against Hamann during class, according to Chou, Razzak and Jones.

“I told her it was incredibly offensive and was unacceptable,” Chou said. “I wanted to leave class afterwards. I felt so uncomfortable and was at a loss for words.”

“After Jaden spoke up, [Hamann] justified it by saying it was ‘historical language’ and responded ‘that’s exactly why we do not use it,’” Razzak said. “She then apologized ‘if’ she made anyone uncomfortable. This is a class with all non-Black students and about five people of color.”

Student Emily Liesch was uncomfortable and upset with Hamann after Hamann’s use of the racial slur.

“She lost respect from me,” Liesch said. “I don’t know if she should keep teaching the class or not.”

Jacob Thomas, a student in the class, said that what Hamann said made him uncomfortable.

“It’s uncomfortable. I’m not going to argue that,” he said. “It’s definitely uncomfortable to hear.”

Thomas suspects it was uncomfortable at the time the piece was written, too. But, he continued, Hamann was reading from a historical document.

“I think there’s an injustice being done towards the professor by the person who spoke up,” Thomas said. “It wasn’t meant to be offensive. She was just reading from the book.”

According to students in the class, the PowerPoint Hamann used had the racial slur on a slide. However, in the PowerPoint made available to the class on Canvas, the slide used the word “Negroes.” According to the original reading obtained by The Duke, it did include the racial slur.

Welsch said in an email to The Duke that the students were correct to report the incident to BERT.

“The university recognizes that the students in the class appropriately acted in sharing their concerns with the graduate student instructor and subsequently providing the Bias Education Response Team with information so that BERT could provide an appropriate educational response,” Welsch said. “Information on the matter has been provided as well to the university’s chief diversity officer as well as the dean of the McAnulty College of the Liberal Arts, both of whom are meeting with concerned parties.

“The university has invested significant time and thought in developing means for Duquesne students, faculty and staff to engage such issues, and will use its tools and processes to address the matter.”

The Duke reached out to Dean of the McAnulty College of the Liberal Arts Kristine L. Blair, who referred The Duke to the statement given by Welsch.

The Duke reached out to psychology chair Elizabeth Fein, but did not receive a response.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), an organization that focuses on protecting free speech rights on American college campuses for comment. FIRE said they were looking into the incident.

For some students, the incident with Hamann reminds them of a similar incident with Gary Shank in fall 2020.

“You would think that she would have learned from Shank,” Chou said. “It was only two years ago and it’s still discussed on campus.”

Shank also said the same slur during a lecture. A video of the incident circulated widely through social media, going viral online. FIRE stood up for Shank during the incident. Shank was later terminated from the university.

Student Mia Capretta questions Hamann’s intentions.

“At this point in time, and especially in her field of study, she has too much knowledge to make a mistake like that,” Capretta said. “It would have taken less thought to skip over the word and it would have been even simpler to just pick a different quote. It makes you think about her intentions.”

As of Wednesday, students from the class had not gotten an apology from Blair, nor the university itself like occurred with Shank.

“I think Duquesne has some really big decisions to make,” Liesch said. “This is now two incidents since I’ve just been at Duquesne where this has happened. You have to wonder who do we have teaching our classes if this has happened twice. After the second time, it’s now a concern.”

“You walk into the first day of classes and you think ‘is my teacher going to say a derogatory word with no warning or anything?’ I think they [the university] have a lot of apologizing to do,” Liesch said. “As more time passes from the incident and we don’t hear from the university, I just don’t think it looks good.”

Correction: Jacob Thomas, a student who was in a class Sept. 29 when the instructor used a racial slur, said he was uncomfortable at what occurred.

“It’s uncomfortable. I’m not going to argue that. It’s definitely uncomfortable to hear,” he said.

A story that ran on page 1 of the Oct. 6 issue was incorrect.