The University of Southern California, photographed in 2018.
CNN  — 

A business professor at the University of Southern California became the center of an international academic controversy last weekend, after ​the school administration received a letter accusing him of using Chinese words that sounded like an English racial slur. ​

The letter was not signed by any individuals, but instead by “Black MBA candidates c/o 2022.”

CNN obtained a copy of the letter, but could not find an official USC group by that name or reach the letter-writers for comment.

Professor Greg Patton of USC’s Marshall School of Business was teaching a ​communications class via Zoom call on August 20, according to the university. An online video recording of the call, which USC confirmed was authentic, shows Patton ​discussing the use of pauses while speaking, and giving an example of how Chinese ​speakers use filler words.

“In China, the common word is ‘that’ – that, that, that, that,” he said in the video, before using the equivalent Chinese term nei ge several times to demonstrate.

The following day, a complaint was filed to the school administration, saying the term sounded like the N-word and that Patton had “offended all of the Black members of our class.”

Headshot for Greg Patton, Professor of Clinical Business Communication at University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business.

“This phrase, clearly and precisely before instruction is always identified as a phonetic homonym and a racial derogatory term, and should be carefully used, especially in the context of speaking Chinese within the social context of the United States,” ​according to the letter, which accused Patton of negligence.

“The way we heard it in class was indicative of a much more hurtful word with tremendous implications for the Black community.”

The video of the class has since been circulated widely online, even spreading on Chinese social media, with Chinese viewers defending Patton’s use of the phrase and expressing confusion about why it ​was viewed as problematic.

A week later, Marshall School Dean Geoffrey Garrett announced that a different professor would take over teaching Patton’s class for the rest of the semester, in an email to students that was shared with CNN.

“Professor Greg Patton repeated several times a Chinese word that sounds very similar to a vile racial slur in English,” said Garrett in the email. “Understandably, this caused great pain and upset among students, and for that I am deeply sorry. It is simply unacceptable for faculty to use words in class that can marginalize, hurt and harm the psychological safety of our students. We must and we will do better.”

Garrett added that he was “deeply saddened” by the “disturbing episode,” and that any students uncomfortable with staying in Patton’s class would have alternative options to complete their academic requirements.

A sign for USC's Marshall School of Business.

A USC Marshall spokesperson told CNN that Patton has not been suspended from teaching; he has only stepped away from the specific course in question, and continues to teach his other classes.

“We acknowledge the historical, cultural and harmful impact of racist language,” said USC Marshall in a statement. “The faculty member agreed to take a short term pause while we are reviewing to better understand the situation and to take any appropriate next steps.”

In a subsequent letter to the USC Marshall graduate student executive body, which was shared with CNN, Patton apologized for causing “discomfort and pain.”

​In the letter, Patton said former international students had given him the example of nei ge as a filler word, and he chose to use it in an attempt to be more inclusive, he said – to “find and include many international, global, diverse, female, broad and inclusive leadership examples and illustrations to enhance communication and interpersonal skill in our global workplace.”

​”I had not realized this negativity previously or I would have replaced the example as we now have,” he added.

International controversy

The incident sparked widespread online controversy after making news headlines, with many arguing that Patton was being unfairly punished for essentially saying the word “um” in a different language.

In Chinese, the term nei ge or na ge literally means “that” or “that one,” and is widely used in daily speech. It also acts as a filler word during pauses, similar to the English words “um” or “like.”

This past week, ​other members of academia, including those of Black and Chinese descent, blasted USC and voiced outrage on social media on Patton’s behalf.

Some pointed out that labeling nei ge or its pronunciation as offensive, as the USC ​administration seemed to do, following the letter, only makes sense within an Anglophone bubble – that doing so portrays the Chinese language as subject to English rules rather than independent and possessing its own contexts.

And though English is the United States’ dominant language, the country doesn’t have an official language.

“All I can say is, the professor’s pronunciation of the Chinese phrase “neige” was accurate, and his use of it as an example of filler language was linguistically appropriate. It’s a *very* common phrase,” tweeted Yale law professor Taisu Zhang, who has previously taught in Hong Kong and China.

The Black China Caucus, an American organization that describes itself as “amplifying Black voices in the China space,” also defended Patton on Twitter.

“The BCC is shocked by how USC mishandled this situation,” the organization posted. “Not only would a quick Mandarin lesson reveal that “nèi ge” is a common pronoun, but USC’s reaction cheapens and degrades substantive conversations surrounding real (diversity, equity and inclusion) challenges on college campuses!”

A petition sent to Dean Garrett and other USC leadership, which was shared with CNN, was signed by nearly 100 alumni of USC Marshall expressing support for Patton – the majority of whom are from mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and other Chinese-speaking regions.

“We represent more than a dozen nationalities and ethnicities and support the global inclusiveness Professor Patton brings to the classroom,” said the alumni petition.

“Most of us are Chinese, some ethnically, some by nationality, and many others have spent extensive time in China. Most of us live in China. We unanimously recognize Prof Patton’s use of ‘na ge’ as an accurate rendition of common Chinese use, and an entirely appropriate and quite effective illustration of the use of pauses.”

The controversy has even made waves on social media across Asia; many in Hong Kong, Taiwan and mainland China responded with disbelief, sympathy for Patton, and a fair bit of ridicule.

Numerous comments on the Chinese social media site Weibo pointed to the Chinese song “Sunshine Rainbow Little White Horse” by Wowkie Zhang, in which nei ge is repeated throughout the chorus.

Other Weibo users echoed American criticisms that this may be an example of cultural sensitivity gone wrong, with a few comments likening the incident to “literary inquisition,” the historical Chinese persecution of intellectuals for their writings.

“I’ve watched the video of the professor’s class, and read the email letter his students sent, and the statement from the school,” one person wrote on Weibo. “I only want to say, this is ridiculous. It’s just too ridiculous.”

Nectar Gan contributed to this report.