Students from Professor Rieder’s class recount the N-word being quoted from a rap lyric and the subsequent disagreement.

On Thursday, October 22, Professor Rieder recited a lyric that included the N-word in his “Culture In America” class while talking about Eminem and multiplicity of identity. He then continued with his lecture. After a minute, a student in the class unmuted and said that as a non-Black person, Rieder shouldn’t say the word. Rieder disagreed. He explained that though he had previously used the full slur, including the “hard r” ending, he’d stopped using the word with the “hard r” two years ago, following conversations with students. 

After class, Rieder invited students to stay for a few minutes to have a “face-to-face” discussion, asking that anyone who wanted to contribute turn on their camera. Two students who talked to Bwog noted that when he said the word, and during this after-class discussion, he did not engage in any discussion about the historical context of the word, or even its use in rap music. Students brought up that given his whiteness, it is inappropriate for him to use the word. Following this, he said that there was an “interesting point about ingroup and outgroup,” and then used this as an excuse to say “bitch” and the homophobic f-slur. He also gave isolated examples from his life of Black people and people of other marginalized identities who had “given him permission” to use these words in an attempt to justify his actions.

Rieder also expressed his belief that liberal arts schools are too sensitive. He said that he uses these words to make students uncomfortable in order to make them grow, given that students exist within a “liberal bubble,” according to Bwog’s sources. 

The sources noted that Rieder’s usage of the racial slur did not come as a surprise to them. They said that he had not previously used the word in class this semester; however, he frequently made uncomfortable generalizations about women and people of color. Furthermore, one of the students noted that they had been explicitly warned about Rieder, as it is well known that he has used the N-word multiple times while teaching. One of the students noted that in a conversation with Sociology Department Head Dr. Mignon Moore, Moore said she is aware of Rieder’s continued use of slurs while teaching, as multiple students have brought complaints against him over the years. The students noted that they were also aware of multiple complaints made against Rieder’s behavior in previous semesters.

The students believe that this semester he will be more careful, only as a result of not wanting to be reported, rather than due to any real change in his behavior. After class, he sent an email to his students where he said, “I regret any pain or offense caused by my quoting, whether one student or the whole class felt pain or offense.” The full text of the email is provided below.

Bwog’s sources said they felt that the email was more of a justification for his use of the word, with an apology for causing pain, rather than an apology for using the word itself, or an acknowledgement that he was wrong to do so. “He definitely still thinks he’s right,” one of the students said. Despite his repeated behavior, the students said that they believe he will face few repercussions, as he is a tenured professor, which makes it difficult to take action against him. 

Repercussions for students are a different matter, though. Both students who talked to Bwog said that they felt the need to remain anonymous because they feared potential repercussions from Rieder. They also noted that in class, when the professor opened up discussion after the student unmuted to challenge his behavior, nobody else spoke up. The students said they think this is likely because many other students in the class feared repercussions from Rieder, as the power dynamic inherent in interactions between students and professors often intimidates students into staying silent, rather than speaking up against their professor. 

Email from Professor Rieder sent to “Culture in America” students on October 29 at 2:17 pm:

Given the importance of the discussion of the “n word,” I thought I’d follow up on the excellent post-class conversation as well as reiterate my appreciation to (student name) for raising the issue. This was a model of how open conversation should unfold, no matter what the issue, how charged the issue, and no matter what points of view are being raised. 

At this point I have only had feedback from a small number of students. I greatly appreciate feedback and always welcome all your thoughts and your responses to this or any of the larger issues I raised in class.  I will always treat any replies as confidential communications and of course if there is a desire on the part of students, I’d be glad to schedule a voluntary class about the specific and broader issues raised here. 

After class, one student asked the important question, did I need to say the word and highlighted a different approach from what Harvard Law School professor Randall Kennedy, author of a book on this topic and the usage of the word, describes as the totalist “eradicationist” position: maybe there are contexts in which the word can be said by a white person, for example,  when probing the historical meaning of the word and the serious harm that it meant to convey and did convey, but not in other contexts.

As I was skimming through lines of lyrics leading up to the final Eight Mile battle scene, I quoted the usage of the word, given that it was not the hard “er” ending but the “a” ending, which I consider sociolinguistically to often function as a different word. In courses in the past, when I have quoted someone else using the hard version of the word, I always gave a warning in the beginning of the course that I did not use the euphemism the “n word” so students were prepared for my quoting the word itself.

Given that I have stopped quoting others’ use of the word, members of this class had no preparation for my quoting the word, or context for understanding my reasons for thinking it is important to be able to quote that word and others too. I regret that lapse and I apologize.

In retrospect, it’s fair to say that I didn’t need to quote the word. I regret any pain or offense caused by my quoting, whether one student or the whole class felt pain or offense. You should know that in the remaining weeks of the course, no material will call for saying the word.  

I have discovered that students often hesitate to air their true opinions about controversial matters in classrooms and it is my hope, as it always has been, that students will continue to raise important issues, speak of their own experience and take on things, and continue to educate our community with honest conversation– in this class, in all higher education settings and beyond them. I applaud all those who are pursuing this approach, no matter what their viewpoints.

I look forward to hearing from you.

view of Barnard’s campus from Milbank via Bwog staffer’s phone