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The faculty of arts is looking into the matter.Photo: Rame Abdulkader/Fulcrum

Leaked email sets twitter ablaze, prof blames lack of context for outrage

A leaked email from a University of Ottawa professor apologizing for using a racial slur in class was posted on Twitter and has quickly sparked outrage within the University community.  

On Sept. 30, Twitter user @cassandrazzi published the original tweet with a screenshot of the email captioning the tweet “@uOttawa pls teach your professors to not say the n word so i don’t have to THANKS!!” 

The Fulcrum was able to confirm that Dr. Verushka Lieutenant-Duval was the professor in question and the incident occurred in her course ART 3317, Art and Gender. 

When speaking with Dr. Lieutenant-Duval, she explained she believed uttering the slur was acceptable given the context of the lesson she was teaching. 

“I explained in a lesson over the major theories in feminist, gender and sexuality studies what queer theory is,” wrote Lieutenant-Duval in an email to the Fulcrum. “I clarified that the term ‘Queer’ is an example of ‘subversive resignification,’ that is to say a word which was, first an insult, which has been reappropriated, emptied of its initial meaning and resignified as a powerful marker of identity. 

“I gave two other examples of this subversive resignification: the word ‘cripple’ resignified by Crip theory and the ‘n-word’, resignified by the black community.”

Lieutenant-Duval was upset that one of her students decided to tweet out her apology, mentioning that it may affect other students’ freedom of expression and jeopardize their safety. 

“I am surprised at first because the person did not respect the ban on sharing with anyone outside the class the content of our class, thereby affecting the freedom of expression of the students in our class, some of which are abroad, in countries where it is very risky to talk about the subject of our course,” wrote Lieutenant-Duval. 

The professor was surprised that the utterance of the slur caused such an outrage. As of Thursday night, the original tweet had 634 likes, 345 retweets, and 36 replies. On Friday afternoon, the account was made private and only followers could see her tweets. 

“This is the first time when I teach this course that the mention of this word provokes a reaction. I see that it is therefore a word that has become very sensitive again and that having known I would not have given it as an example. I then apologized to the whole class in case I could have hurt someone. I also took the opportunity to discuss this word in class and what should be done: talk about it to change things or censor it?”

A student enrolled in the class who requested anonymity told the Fulcrum that students in the class were upset with the way the professor handled the situation. 

“The way she handled it, I didn’t really feel like she took the time to educate herself about why it was wrong. She kind of opened it up as a discussion and made it seem like it’s something that can be debated. She asked ‘What do you guys think? Should we be allowed to use this word in our discussions?’”

“There were people, myself included in the Zoom chat function, giving their take on it, and the majority were saying that ‘No you shouldn’t be saying that, it’s not acceptable, and it’s not a discussion open for anybody, it’s a decision for people of colour,’ ” said the student.

Most reactions to the tweet accused the professor of being insensitive and ignoring the current social climate and the meaning behind the slur.

Thursday evening, the University of Ottawa’s Media Relations manager Isabelle Mailloux-Pulkinghorn wrote in an email to the Fulcrum that they are investigating the matter.

“The University has been made aware of the allegations of inappropriate language used by a faculty of arts lecturer and the language is offensive and completely unacceptable in our classrooms and on our campus.”

“The faculty is looking into the matter to gain a full understanding of what occurred in this class. At uOttawa everyone has the right to an environment free of discrimination and harassment and to be treated with dignity and respect.”

The University of Ottawa reiterated that message by directly commenting on the original thread Friday morning. 

The University of Ottawa Student’s Union (UOSU) also replied to The Fulcrum’s request to comment via email.  

”We are deeply troubled by reports of these incidents, involving racialized students victimized by the use of slurs in classrooms,” said Babacar Faye, president of UOSU. “We are particularly concerned by reports of racial slurs uttered in Zoom Breakout rooms in the absence of the professor, as well as the use of a racial slur by professor Lieutenant-Duval. The professor also confirms that this is a regular occurrence among white professors at the University.”

“This demonstrates the need for anti-oppression training for our professors, as well as more culturally competent staff.  We often say that racism has no place on our campus, yet it seems to have been enrolled into our classrooms. Incidents like these make racialized students feel unwelcome and question their belonging to the uOttawa community.”

When The Fulcrum reached out to the Part-Time Professors Association (APTPUO), which Dr. Lieutenant-Duval is a part of, they were initially unaware of the incident. It is unaware whether or not they will be having their own investigation. 

“Considering this situation is under investigation by the Faculty, we will not provide any comment to ensure the integrity of the process. Normally, the Association never comments on members’ files. However, it seems that the publication of the email and the tweet made by the student was made of context,” wrote Jean-Sébastien Daoust, APTPUO administrative director via email. 

“The Association has some concern about the consequences of using social media as a public trial. Universities should be a safe place to discuss different topics, even sensitive ones. The academic community should not be scared or censure themselves in the fear of being judged in the public place without a fair process.”

When speaking with Professor Lieutenant-Duval, she also told The Fulcrum she had received a number of emails from people accusing her of being racist and asking her to resign on top of the Twitter outrage. 

“Your recent acts of racism at the University of Ottawa [have] been brought to my attention and it has truly made me lose an immense amount of respect for the university and for you as a professor,” wrote an anonymous person in an email to Lieutenant-Duval obtained by The Fulcrum. “I can’t believe that as an educated person with a doctorate in humanities, with a focus on society and culture, you lack common knowledge such as the history of the n-word and why it should not be used by non-black people today. 

This article will be updated as more information becomes available.