Lecturer is told that the word ‘negro’ can never be used

A social media storm has erupted over the disciplining of a senior lecturer at Uppsala University after four students complained when she used the Swedish word neger (negro) as an example when asked how to look up in older archives words that today are considered controversial or offensive.

“You enter the word directly into window,” Inga-Lill Aronsson explained, in a panel debate on classification and knowledge organisation in the masters programme on archival science, library and information science, museum and heritage studies at the end of the autumn semester in 2019.

This was reported as a provocation by four students present, stating that she had no right to use this word since she was not of colour and had not experienced racism.

According to the rules, a meeting was arranged that included the head and deputy head of the department, the trade union representative and the human resource specialist for equal rights (likavillkorsspecialist) from the university administration. At this meeting Aronsson was informed about the discrimination rules, but also forced to promise to never use the ‘n-word’ again. During the meeting the word was never outspoken, but referred to as the ‘n-word’, Aronsson told University World News.

The university also deleted video footage of the entire panel debate, which had been recorded for distance learning purposes.

The meeting was reported in Universitetsläraren, the newspaper of the Swedish Association of University Teachers and Researchers (SULF), and the issue was taken up last week by Göran Rosenberg, opinion editor for Radio Sweden’s “Good Morning, World!”– “Easily offended” programme. He asked listeners in a programme on 12 January who should really be offended, the long-term lecturer reprimanded by her own university, or the students who did not even show up when their complaint was discussed?

“Often it is sufficient that an investigation is started,” Rosenberg said. “No smoke without a fire is a suspicion that it is not easy to free oneself of. Notably when the smoke effectively can be strengthened and made eternal on social media.”

Instead of making a formal complaint against their teacher, the students should have “raised their hands to discuss the matter with her”, he suggested.

Rosenberg’s intervention triggered a debate on the Facebook page Universitetsläckan (University leak), which within two days gathered 83 comments, most of them warning against “political correctness”.

Aronsson told University World News the incident raises an important principle. “It is related to ‘safe spaces at the university’ but also to academic freedom, and the search for knowledge. Today, unfortunately, too many people are hesitant within the academy to be associated with any of these ‘tricky’ issues because it has consequences for your career.

“I was prepared to let the journalist use my name, because it is a real concrete case. It can be discussed, with the purpose to make a change.”

But Reine Rydén, deputy head of Aronsson’s department, who attended the meeting, when asked why the word ‘negro’ should not be used, told University World News that was a matter of the university’s equal opportunities policy, but “if you ask for my personal opinion, I can reply with a counter question: are there any reasons why we should use that word at lectures?”

Stockholm University Professor of Linguistics Lars Melin told University World News: “From my linguistic perspective, it is easy to see that more and more people believe that words possess magical powers. They can be in the service of the good, for example, the new unisex pronoun hen claims to seriously make us more equal [in Swedish ‘he’ is han, ‘she’ is hun and hen is the new sexually neutral word proposed].

“But usually the words are in the service of evil. The ‘n-word’ opens for apartheid, Ku Klux Klan and lynching.

“This is pure nonsense, but the believers are becoming more and more aggressive. Strangely, they care more about the words than the well-being of black people.”

Commenting on the issue, Lena Adamson, associate professor of psychology at Stockholm University, told University World News: “In the 1960s and 1970s the engagement of students and their activism was directed towards war and injustice in the world. Today this is mostly directed inwards towards academia, in my view in a devastating and unacademic egocentrism.”