Adjunct Professor of the University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights used an anti-Black slur several times in a Zoom class.
Content warning: This article includes the subject of racism.
Shown in a now-deleted video on a Columbia student’s Twitter account, Professor Dinah PoKempner, who appears to be white, used the n-word multiple times in her International Human Rights Law class.
The video showed Professor PoKempner’s Zoom box with her name attached in the lower left-hand corner with her using the slur continuously. PoKempner also mimicked a stutter and aspects of AAVE-speech. She appeared to be quoting something, as she paused and said “and then he said,” before launching into another 30 seconds of repeating the slur.
PoKempner is an adjunct professor at the University’s Institute for Human Rights. PoKempner is also general counsel of the prominent non-governmental organization Human Rights Watch, on the website of which her profile appears to have been removed.
We at Bwog condemn racism in all forms. We’re including the video below this post as a record of Professor PoKempner’s behavior.
Bwog has reached out to Columbia Communications for comment and to see if immediate action will be taken regarding PoKempner’s behavior. The response we received directed us to the University Faculty Handbook, under “student grievances against professors.”
“The University seeks to provide a learning environment that promotes intellectual inquiry and analytical thinking. In pursuit of those goals and the objectives of their courses, faculty may find it necessary to engage their students in discussions about issues that are contentious and emotionally charged, to respond critically to students’ reasoning, and to challenge them to reexamine deeply held beliefs. This is an important part of the faculty’s responsibility to their students and the educational mission of the University, but it must be done with civility, tolerance, and respect for ideas that differ from their own.
When students feel that one of their professors has not met that requirement, they are encouraged to resolve the problems directly with the faculty member but may instead turn to several offices for assistance. They may also seek a formal hearing of their complaints against the faculty member under the grievance procedures of their school. Each school has its own procedures for evaluating student complaints about the conduct of their instructors. These are posted on the school’s web site and may also be obtained by contacting the office of its dean. Faculty with questions about those procedures should also contact their dean.”
If you have any information regarding past or present instances of racism by Columbia faculty, students, or affiliates, please contact email@example.com. Anonymity can be provided for our sources without question.
We are also providing mental health resources below—we encourage any community member to reach out to these resources if they feel inclined.
Counseling and Psychological Services: 5th and 8th Floor Lerner Hall, (212) 854-2878
Live Well | Learn Well: wellbeing.columbia.edu
Office of University Life: universitylife.columbia.edu
Nightline: Call this anonymous peer listening service at 212-854-7777, 10:00 p.m.–3:00 a.m.
Furman Counseling Center: 100 Hewitt Hall, (212) 854-2092
After-hours psychological emergency line: (855) 622-1903
After-hours clinician on-call: (855) 622-1903
International SOS for those students who are abroad can contact +1-215-942-8478
How you can take action:
Concerned students composed an email to express their belief that Professor PoKempner should be removed from her position at the University. We at Bwog support the students in their endeavor to condemn the professor’s anti-Black language directly to Columbia’s administration. This link will redirect you to the email template, outfitted with a message in the body, subject, and recipients. MAD, or the Mobilized Africa Diaspora, has created a petition directing the Institute for the Study of Human Rights and the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy to remove PoKempner from her position. You can sign the petition here.
Open letter from eight ISHR faculty and staff members:
Copied below is the open letter prepared by eight faculty and staff members at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights in response to the events of this post. This is not a formal ISHR statement.
Open Letter from Faculty and Staff at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights
We, the undersigned, are writing in our individual capacity as faculty and staff at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights, to acknowledge the anger and hurt expressed by students in the course on International Human Rights Law in response to the use of a racist term on April 1st. We recognize that students did not experience the safe and respectful learning environment that should be expected in all educational institutions, but especially in a human rights program, and we acknowledge that this caused harm to students.
ISHR was founded on a commitment to fostering human rights, social justice, dignity, non-discrimination, and equality. While many conversations have taken place over the last few days, we consider it our responsibility to call for immediate attention to the matter and to express our solidarity with and support for students and members of our community who are affected.
We recognize that students initiated a complaint with the Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action Office and we respect the ongoing procedures and the need for due process. At the same time, we stress the importance of us as ISHR staff and faculty to address these events, to reaffirm our commitment to human rights and human dignity, and to ensure inclusive, safe, and respectful learning.
We live in an unprecedented moment of reckoning with racial justice. Human rights organizations, advocates, and universities across the country are grappling with how to acknowledge and address historical and ongoing harms that result from systemic oppression, discrimination, and racism. This requires recognition and reflection of the roles that each of us plays within our institutions and places a particular responsibility on us as educators. Language matters, context matters, and relationships of power matter.
We share Columbia University’s commitment to a learning environment that promotes intellectual inquiry and the exploration of contentious topics. This includes the discussion of hate speech in the context of freedom of expression. Academic freedom allows for the use of language that is offensive, however, that does not mean that its use is always appropriate. Academic freedom does not exist in a vacuum, and it is imperative that it be exercised in a manner that promotes respect for diversity and inclusion in the classroom.
We are committed to working with ISHR’s board, the University, faculty, staff, and students to:
- Ensure a safe and respectful learning environment; promote anti-racist pedagogy; and create spaces for students, faculty, and staff to discuss matters of racial and social justice and how they should inform the Institute’s teaching, research, and advocacy;
- Promote the centering of race, gender, and other identities and intersectionality in decisions on appointments, review processes, and institutional governance;
- Encourage the communication of any public outcomes of the EOAA process and the response to them with the student body, especially human rights students.
Kristina Eberbach, Deputy Director of the Institute for the Study of Human Rights; Adjunct Assistant Professor of International and Public Affairs
Gergana Halpern, Director of Education Programs, Institute for the Study of Human Rights
Magdalena Medley, Communications Coordinator, Institute for the Study of Human Rights
Lara J. Nettelfield, Senior Lecturer in the Discipline of Human Rights, Department of Political Science, Director of Graduate Studies, Human Rights Studies M.A. Program
Monica Olveira, Education Program Coordinator, Institute for the Study of Human Rights
David L. Phillips, Director of Peace-building and Rights Program, Institute for the Study of Human Rights
Elsa Stamatopoulou, Director of Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Program, Institute for the Study of Human Rights; Adjunct Professor, Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race & Department of Anthropology
Inga T. Winkler, Lecturer in the Discipline of Human Rights, Department of Political Science, Director of Undergraduate Studies
Update on Tuesday, April 20 at 3:58 pm:
This afternoon, the Institute for the Study of Human Rights (ISHR) responded to complaints regarding a recent act of racism by Adjunct Professor Dinah PoKempner in a course on International Human Rights Law. The Institute addressed that they were waiting on the decision of the Columbia Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action for guidelines on the next steps to be taken. Elazar Barkan, the Director of the Institute for the Study of Human Rights, expressed their personal sadness on the matter and offered empathy to angry or hurt students. The email also discussed the Institute’s efforts to further pedagogical development on anti-racism and bias training. Barkan acknowledged the age of reckoning around the nation and emphasized that the anxieties triggered by racism across the country are shared within the human rights community. The email, which was sent to all students on ISHR’s email list, is included below.
Email sent to students from ISHR Director Elazar Barkan on April 20 at 3:06 pm:
Students in a course on international human rights law sponsored by the Institute for the Study of Human Rights (ISHR) have complained to Columbia University’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action about the use of a derogatory word during a lesson on hate speech and freedom of expression taught by Professor Dinah PoKempner. The Institute for the Study of Human Rights respects the EOAA policies and procedures (https://eoaa.columbia.edu/content/eoaa-policies-procedures-update-faqs), and will await the outcome of the EOAA inquiry before taking any further action in this matter.
However, that obviously is not the end of the issue. Foremost, the students have been left unsettled and angry in the final weeks of a very difficult year, not just due to COVID-19, but also because of the many flagrant cases of racial injustice. What I have encountered over the last week or so, made clear to me that while ISHR must follow university procedures, I feel that in my personal capacity I should respond more substantively. It is in that spirit that I acknowledge my empathy for the students who have expressed anger and hurt and have complained to the EOAA. For now, I would like to share my sadness that this issue caused anxiety for so many among us, an anxiety that has been aggravated by racist violence around the country, inequity and injustice, which unsettled the life of many students, in particular BIPOC students, and many others who are committed to racial solidarity.
The sentiments of racial solidarity are widely shared among the human rights community. Demands for racial equity are growing concurrently with greater racial and ethnic disparity, so that an incident like the use of derogatory and demeaning speech cannot be understood solely in terms of intention, but also within the context of those who hear it. We are now in an unprecedented moment of reckoning with racial oppression and injustice, a moment which emphasizes the need for redress. Human rights organizations, advocates, and universities across the country are grappling with how to acknowledge and address historical and ongoing harms that result from systemic oppression, discrimination, and racism. This impacts every facet of our lives, and requires recognition and reflection on the roles that each of us play within our institutions. What used to be referred to as civil rights is rapidly expanding to become human rights. This panoply of human rights, that for many used to connote “international,” is increasingly becoming the urgent task of domestic justice as well.
As to policy going forward, ISHR is working to develop further pedagogical support for teaching faculty and students to address racial injustice, as well as all forms of discrimination, bias, and oppression in a manner that allows these subjects to be discussed with respect and through an anti-racist lens. We also welcome the input and contributions of our students in ensuring a safe learning environment, while recognizing that this is the Institute’s primary responsibility.
As this difficult school year comes to a close, challenges continue to confront us within the University and the nation. The Institute is firm in its commitment to address and work to promote racial justice and redress.
Warning: this video contains racist language that is harmful and abhorrent.
Update on Wednesday, April 14 at 10:18 pm: An anonymous source has informed us that the events of this post took place last week.
Update on Thursday, April 15 at 4:05 pm: We included the additional resource of an email template to give supporters the option to express their thoughts to the University.
Update on Thursday, April 15 at 10:41 pm: We updated the “how you can take action” section to include the Mobilized African Diaspora’s petition.
Update on Saturday, April 17 at 12:13 pm: We added the open letter prepared by eight faculty and staff members at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights in response to the events of this post.
Update on Tuesday, April 20 at 3:58 pm:
We added a statement provided by the Institute for the Study of Human Rights in response to student complaints about Professor PoKempner’s recent harmful and racist speech.
Butler via Bwog Archives