那个 & the N-word
Updated: Apr 8
Dear Asian Youth,
I’m sure many of you have seen the recent news regarding the controversy of a USC Marshall School of Business Professor. Greg Patton, the professor in question, hosted an online class session in which he discussed various public speaking patterns and the common use of filler words during conversations. Patton brought up the example of a Chinese filler word ‘那个’, which can be pronounced as ‘nèi ge (nay-guh)’ or ‘nà ge (nah-ge)’ depending on various dialects. It is not difficult to spot the similarities between the former pronunciation of ‘nèi ge’ and the racial slur of the N-word. Quite a few of Patton’s students took offense to his choice of words, and reported their concerns to the school administration.
Students expressed that Patton’s actions were “hurtful and unacceptable to (the) USC Marshall community,” and that he showed direct “negligence and disregard” towards a student audience that is extremely culturally diverse. Some students even revealed that their mental health had been severely impacted, which resulted in a lack of focus during their other classes. “To expect that we will sit through two more weeks of this class, knowing that the professor lacks the tact, racial awareness and empathy to lead and teach an audience as diverse as ours is unacceptable,” the students wrote. The strong disapproval of Patton’s delivery is apparent.
Professor Patton has since agreed to a temporary pause in teaching the Communication for Management course in order to properly evaluate and address any issues regarding racial bias and microaggressions. I commend the professor for how respectful and professional he was when handling the situation: sending out apologies and openly acknowledging his actions. While his actions should be evaluated, I feel the need to come to his defense. Professor Patton did actually preface that he was going to use a Chinese phrase, and did not use the phrase of ‘nèi ge’ out of context. Though I am a proponent of reflecting and recognizing social issues, it is important to understand that cultural differences should not be a standard to define right or wrong.
As a Chinese individual, I have been in many similar predicaments before. A few years ago, I attended a summer course in the United States, where there was only one other Chinese student in the class except for me. When we talked one-on-one, we often spoke in Mandarin. I remember trying to crack a joke with her, but kept on forgetting what I was going to say. While I was stuttering to think of the right words to use, I said ‘nèi ge’ a couple of times to help me remember. Immediately, a Black student in the class widened his eyes in shock. He stared at me incredulously as his mouth hung open. I paused, bewildered by his reaction.
“I never took you as someone who would use the N-word.”
“What? I was speaking in Mandarin.”
“Nope, pretty sure I heard you say the N-word.”
I thought about what I had said, and I immediately understood what he was referring to. I quickly explained to him the meaning behind ‘nèi ge’ and what circumstances Chinese people usually use it in. I assured him that I have never and will never use the N-word, and that this was simply a linguistic misunderstanding.
What frustrates me is the lack of understanding. I’ve read many internet comments that call out Chinese people for being insensitive with the use of ‘nèi ge’, and there are many people demanding that we avoid any use of this word in social situations. This request is ignorant and completely out of line.
A little bit of history: the N-word originated in the 18th century, and is a derogatory ethnic slur directed at Black people. However, the Chinese word ‘nèi ge’ was put into use hundreds of years before that. Though the pronunciation may be similar, the cultural and historical meaning behind ‘nèi ge’ has absolutely no correlation with the N-word, and should never be associated this way. Asking Chinese people to abandon such a commonly-used and utterly harmless phrase is like asking English-speakers to stop using ‘like’ when conversing—impossible (trust me, I’ve tried). If we really want to take this route of logic and apply it to other languages as well, people would basically be banned from having day-to-day conversations. To illustrate, ‘내가’ in Korean is pronounced as ‘naega’, and is usually used to say ‘I am’. This phrase also shares similarities with the pronunciati