Mouth watch: N-word sparks UVA outcry

When UVA employee Myra Larkin convened a staff meeting two weeks ago, she couldn't have known that a casual comment would result in a campus-wide uproar that included a protest, an official response from UVA president John Casteen, and coverage of the dustup in various media outlets.

Larkin declined comment for this story, citing her desire to let the whole event pass, but others have been outspoken in their criticism of the protesters and of UVA's official response to the incident.

"It's political correctness gone insane," says activist Kevin Cox, also a UVA employee."

Cox's feelings are echoed in multiple messages to the website. "I could understand a protest if a supervisor fired an employee because he was black," writes one, "but a protest based on this incident... really detracts from the legitimacy of the argument. They're calling someone a racist who had no racist intent in [her] comment. And to me, that's just stupid."

Indeed, according to the statement issued by Casteen, the remark was not intended as a slur.

"I can't believe in this day and age that there's a sports team in our nation's capital named the Redskins," he quotes Larkin. "That is as derogatory to Indians as having a team called N****** would be to Blacks."

According to Casteen, no one present in the racially mixed group to which Larkin was speaking reported feeling personally insulted by her comment. They separately said they had been "shocked," "stunned," and "surprised" that the word had been spoken in public, but, according to Casteen, they all agreed: This was very likely "an unfortunate, one-time use of the language."

So how did a verbal faux pas end up making headlines and prompting such a prominent figure as NAACP head Julian Bond to suggest in a mass email that, were it not for his respect for freedom of speech, he would recommend that the speaker be fired?

UVA spokesperson Carol Wood says it's not clear how the incident was reported, or by whom.

Randall Kennedy, an African-American professor of law at Harvard, notes in a recent book that the context of any remark is key. Kennedy raised thousands of eyebrows last year with his best-selling history of the verboten word, which used that word as its title.

Kennedy believes any presidential candidate found to have used the "n word" as a slur should withdraw his or her candidacy. But he also recognizes "good" uses.

"It's well known now that within certain sectors of the black community, a salutation that is meant to be totally friendly begins, 'My nigger,'" Kennedy says in a 2002 interview in The Atlantic. "The word takes on its meaning from the context in which it's spoken: tone of voice, who is saying it, where it is said, what the intention is of the saying."

Cox believes UVA protesters twisted Larkin's meaning. "There was a context for the word," says Cox. "The person was expressing her own feelings of revulsion for racism." Cox says he thinks the protest, organized by the newly formed UVA Staff Union, was an attempt to "exploit the issue to recruit members."

"It was a cheap strategy that really hurt someone who agrees with them," adds Cox. "It was counterproductive to their goal of recruitment; they came across as narrow minded, politically correct people."

Jan Cornell, president of the Staff Union, denies that was her objective: "My intent was to put racism back on the table at UVA," she explains. "I didn't do this to get attention for the union."

Cornell admits that she brought the incident to the administration's attention in a November 11 letter, a day after the staff meeting, but she claims there was no response until she organized the protest and arranged for media coverage nearly two weeks later. UVA's Wood says that's not accurate: by the morning of November 12, she says, the university had begun interviewing witnesses to the incident.

Cornell adds that this was not the first time a complaint had surfaced regarding Larkin's management style.

"We have sent letters to the administration regarding Larkin on two previous occasions," says Cornell. According to Cornell's letters, the Union has received more than a dozen complaints from employees who work for Myra Larkin and Donna Redman. Among the charges: unfair treatment, suspensions (allegedly for no documented reason), changing working orders, EEO violations, and nepotism.

"I note once again," wrote Cornell on November 3, a week before the "N word" incident, "these two supervisors are white while most of the workers being hassled are black. This situation could become volatile and smacks of racism and discrimination."

Redman did not immediately return The Hook's calls.

But Ann Pontuso, a UVA nurse who has worked with Larkin, says she has never seen anything to suggest that Larkin is less than professional.

"I think she's a lovely woman," says Pontuso. "She's always been very nice and well spoken."

She describes Larkin's job as a patient representative as challenging. "People get up in her face," says Pontuso, "and she's always conducted herself well."

While racial issues have aroused and will continue to arouse strong feelings, the dust around this particular incident seems to have settled.

But Cornell hopes the protest and media coverage will keep the focus on what she describes as the larger race issue at UVA, a school that barred blacks from enrolling until 1950.

UVA's Wood also believes the incident will result in a greater awareness among the University's workforce about the need for sensitivity.

Most importantly, she hopes that it will increase communication in every department. "UVA employees," Wood says, "should feel very comfortable talking to their supervisors about any issue."

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