Students call for accountability, faculty diversity after professor twice uses racial slur

May 11, 2020, 1:08 a.m.

Students reacted with disappointment and anger after an assistant professor wrote the N-word in a course discussion post last Monday, less than one week after saying the word in a different class on April 28. Many expressed concerns that these incidents and Stanford’s response demonstrate a greater lack of accountability to issues of racial violence within the University. Many have called on Stanford to increase faculty diversity and departmentalize the African and African American Studies (AAAS) program.  

Assistant art history professor Rose Salseda typed the N-word last Monday while writing the full name of hip-hop group N.W.A in a discussion post for her course AFRICAAM 291: “Riot!: Visualizing Civil Unrest in the 20th and 21st Centuries.” Salseda, who is not Black, had already been criticized after saying the N-word on April 28 while reading song lyrics from a slide in a guest lecture for CSRE 196C: “Introduction to Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity.”

Students were disappointed that Salseda used the N-word again after facing criticism and apologizing following her guest lecture.  

“It’s like a giant middle-finger to everyone that has been criticizing her,” said Judy Tsegaye ’21, who was in attendance during Salseda’s guest lecture on April 28. “To say the N-word is one thing but to say it again, after a week of Black students and their allies speaking out, feels particularly malicious.” 

With a month left in the quarter, some students enrolled in Salseda’s class spoke with The Daily on the condition of anonymity to avoid the potential for classroom hostility. There are currently 14 students in Salseda’s class. 

A frosh studying CSRE and art practice withdrew from AFRICAAM 291 after Salseda’s guest lecture in CSRE 196C, expressing concern that Salseda seemed oblivious to the implications of using the slur.

“For both incidents, I felt angry and disappointed in both her and her actions,” the frosh said. “Saying the word was completely unnecessary, and her ‘apologies’ have only consisted of shamelessly inadequate excuses.”

CSRE 196C professors David Kim and Tomás Jiménez told The Daily that when Tsegaye raised concerns in the guest lecture, Salseda apologized, saying she was “merely reading the lyrics to the song.”

On the night of April 28, Kim and Jiménez forwarded students a written note from Salseda.

“I apologize for reading the NWA lyric during today’s lecture,” Salseda wrote. “I’m sorry this was hurtful. I value the comments and responses you have shared, which I take to heart. I will not read that type of text again.”

The frosh said, “I told her there’s no context that justifies the use of the word by a non-Black Latinx person, and she can’t claim to not know this because of her background in Black studies. It’s been almost a week, and I still haven’t received a reply.” 

Other community members have spoken out against Salseda’s actions. An open letter drafted by members of the Asian American community — co-signed by 10 student organizations and more than 100 individual students — called Salseda’s initial apology “lackluster.” The incident has also sparked conversations in the Latinx community on campus. 

“Within the Latinx community inside and outside of Stanford, there has been a failure to address the prevalence of anti-Blackness,” wrote a student in Salseda’s class who identifies as non-Black, Latinx, first-generation and low-income. “If we don’t call out anti-Blackness, we are actively upholding it.”

On Wednesday, Salseda addressed both incidents in a class conversation moderated by A-lan Holt, director of the Institute for Diversity in the Arts. 

Some students in attendance felt the conversation was productive.

“Rose [Salseda] seemed committed to restructuring the Riot! class and her teaching style,” wrote one student. “I genuinely believe that Rose isn’t a bad person, but there is no question that she made poor decisions.”

“I believe Rose does really care about her students and their well-being, but I don’t think that forgives her ignorance or the harm she caused,” said another.

Students in Salseda’s class said they take no issue with racial slurs appearing in historical material as long as Salseda doesn’t use them herself.

“I think it’s important we see materials like that as they were,” said a prospective AAAS major in Salseda’s class. “However, the song lyrics and the post she made are a different story … we can hold ourselves to a higher standard.”  

In a statement to The Daily, Salseda wrote, “The lyric [containing the N-word that was read in the guest lecture] was integral to the analysis of an artwork I was discussing about racial solidarity among black and brown communities. At the end of the lecture, I realized what I had done, including the distress this had caused students. I apologized and feel terribly.”

She added that she decided to write the N.W.A discussion post, a bio of the group, in case students felt uncomfortable with the assignment. 

“While my intention was to center the voices of artists who have made important social interventions, I recognize the impact my reading of the N.W.A. lyric and the posting of their biography has had on students, especially Black students,” Salseda wrote. “I sincerely apologize for those actions and am committed to changing classroom practices.” 

Jennifer Brody, the Director of the Center for Comparative Studies of Race and Ethnicity (CCSRE), told The Daily that she has spoken with Salseda, Kim and Jiménez about the incidents. 

“CCSRE will establish a committee to develop a training program for all professors, lecturers, and potentially guest speakers, to support their pedagogy in CCSRE and cross-listed courses,” Brody wrote.  

“We want to emphasize the continued need for a more diverse faculty at Stanford to support student learning and lead on racial justice scholarship,” she added. “CCSRE remains one of the very few institutions on the Stanford Campus that has continuously fought and advocated for more Black and non-white faculty on this campus, as well as leaders in racial justice scholarship.”

Some professors have individually addressed the incident with their students. PWR Lecturer Ruth Starkman emailed her students on Tuesday affirming her support of students’ criticisms. 

“Students were really upset, not because she wrote the name of an artist, but because she wrote the name of the artist after she registered they were already upset,” Starkman wrote. “The fact she did this afterwards was an act of self-assertion.”

The outcry over Salseda’s remarks comes amid broader student advocacy surrounding faculty diversity. The Stanford Art and Art History website lists Salseda as the only faculty member in the field of African American art. 

“As much as I love the field and my studies, I believe that the art history program’s faculty is in desperate need of diversity and expansion,” said an art history major in Salseda’s class. 

On Tuesday, the Undergraduate Senate passed a resolution condemning Salseda’s actions and urging the departmentalization of AAAS and the recognition of racial violence on campus. 

“She thinks our art, our history and our culture is so important that she studies it and she teaches it,” said Senator Kobe Hopkins ’22. “The way she chooses to engage with the material has to be more sensitive, it has to be more intentional.”  

The “n-word has a history of racial oppression against Black folks, dating back to the era of American slavery, and reclamation of the word by members of the Black community subverts ongoing oppression,” the resolution reads. 

The resolution also states benefits of having a department for AAAS: “Both department status and adequate funding will equip AAAS with the tools and resources necessary to recruit Black scholars with expertise in African-American art and art history.”

When asked about departmentalization, School of Humanities and Sciences spokesperson Joy Leighton wrote that “one of the strengths of AAAS being an interdisciplinary program (IDP) is that it is able to draw faculty from different disciplines into one major.”

“Our best strategy is to attract these groups … through our departments, as we have attracted the stellar AAAS and CSRE engaged faculty we have now,” Leighton wrote.  

University spokesperson E.J. Miranda told The Daily that “faculty diversity is a priority and we have taken some important steps forward.”

“We have enhanced funding for incentive programs that hire diverse faculty and the provost has reorganized her operation prioritizing faculty diversity,” Miranda wrote. “A diverse student body needs to have a diverse faculty, and while some changes take time due to the nature of faculty careers, we will continue making progress.”

Kory Gaines ’21, co-president of the Black Student Union, expressed concern that the lack of departmentalization for AAAS indicates a greater “disregard for Black knowledge systems” at Stanford. He also cited criticisms of the University’s treatment of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research & Education Institute, which is housed in a temporary building on campus. Regarding these issues, Gaines said the University shows its priorities by where it puts its funding.

“Where is the money going? It is not going to Black studies or to the leading collection of documents on King and the Civil Rights Movement, so what’s that tell us?” Gaines said.

A previous version of this article misspelled Judy Tsegaye’s last name in one instance. The Daily regrets this error.

Contact Melissa Loupeda at mloupeda ‘at’

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