Editor’s Note: This situation is ongoing and may require updates.
Wednesday afternoon, a UTK student tweeted an image of a campus white board with the phrase “Never Ignorant Getting Goals Accomplished,” accompanied by an acronym for the phrase that is also a racial slur. The phrase is from a song by the late rapper Tupac Shakur, and the tweet has more than 56,000 likes and has been reposted more than 5,000 times. A UTK professor was captured standing beside the white board in the photo.
The phrase was written on the board by the professor during an in-person Africana Studies class.
Student Emily Morris walked into the classroom pictured in the tweet just before the start of class time, and the professor was already speaking. Morris said she saw the professor write the aforementioned acronym and slur, and added that the professor had also written “Thug Life” on the board as an acronym for “The Hate U Give Little Infants F**** Everybody,” another Shakur quote.
Morris said that the two phrases had nothing to do with what the professor was lecturing about during class on Wednesday.
“I was like, oh, I’m not gonna write that down because I am uncomfortable writing that down, so then we started going through all the class stuff, and what we were talking about was not related at all to either of those things she wrote on the board, but the acronym and the slur stayed up the whole class period,” Morris said.
No one raised concerns over the word during class time, Morris said.
“It was completely inappropriate and unnecessary for her to do that (write the racially-charged term), especially given our social climate right now,” Morris said. “It made a lot of students uncomfortable, I think, and obviously the backlash on Twitter is representative of that.”
Morris said that the professor did not say the slur in class.
Another student arrived to class early, placed their backpack down in the classroom and went to use the restroom. When they returned, the two phrases were already written on the board.
“It was only like three minutes into class, so there couldn’t have been much that I missed, and I completely missed any conversation surrounding that and no one was saying anything, so I was really confused,” the student said.
Unsure as to why the phrase was written on the board, the student took a photo and shared it with friends, one of whom posted the photo on Twitter.
“I was kind of in shock. I was just like, what’s going on, and I trusted my friends and stuff because my two friends that are in that group chat are Black. … I felt like as a white person, I didn’t really have any say in the issue, so I just wanted to get some sort of like hey, what’s going on here, what do you think I should do about this?” the student said.
The student said the professor was busy talking to another student after class, so they emailed the professor to ask about why the word was written on the board. As of writing, the professor has not responded to their email.
“I was like, hey, could I get some clarification about why you wrote that on the board? I was always taught that non-Black people should never use that word, or in any context or situation just because of the history behind it and the meaning behind,” the student said.
Both students added that the professor studies hip hop music, which may indicate why she was referencing the phrases.
Another UTK student responded to the tweet with the photo of the white board and stated — in a tweet that currently has more than 53,000 likes and 12,000 reposts — that the same professor who wrote the slur also gave students an assignment to recreate the experience of being on board a slave ship, during a previous semester.
The student provided a screenshot from the educational app Canvas of the alleged assignment description, which reads the following:
“Slave ships allocated 3ft X 1ft of space per enslaved African--- most of which were shackled to another human being for anywhere from a month to a year in transit to the ‘New World.’ You can obtain 5 points extra credit (to be added to an exam score) by doing the following exercise: a. create a space 3 ft long by 1 ft wide b. spend one hour ‘IN’ that space c. write about the experience, in terms of what it may have been like for millions for enslaved Africans who endured the Middle Passage (at least a well developed paragraph submitted in paper format or via canvas portal).”
The student stated that they reported the incident to the university but that nothing was done about the situation. UTK stated Sunday that the university is currently looking into this report and that after the assignment in 2019, the chair of the Africana Studies department discussed “the need to provide preparation, context, and warning” for such assignments with the professor involved.
Thursday morning, the day after the image surfaced on Twitter, Student Body President Karmen Jones, who is the first Black woman student body president at UTK, spoke with university administration about the situation and requested that the professor be terminated.
Jones met with several faculty members to express her concern over the professor’s actions.
“I basically was very transparent with them about how inappropriate this would be, and that this is the wrong faculty member that they need to stand behind and they better handle this appropriately or students will be prepared to mobilize in different ways, and I told them, I said we have external community leaders who are messaging me and are telling me that when you’re ready to go, then we’ll go, and I said, we can’t get to this point,” Jones said. “We shouldn’t have to get to this point.”
Jones said that on Sunday, Plowman called her to explain that the university was not planning to terminate the professor who had written the slur, who is not tenured, stating that she wanted to tell Jones prior to the university releasing the information.
“She told me that she did not think that we were working together, and she didn’t know what to do about that, but you know, I said, I can’t work with someone who is inflicting racism,” Jones said. “I won’t be on that side of history any day. I’m a Black woman, and I was elected by students, not by admin, and so that conversation was short. I let her say what she had to say. I told her I was not surprised by the decision, and I reported back to students.”
Plowman held a roundtable discussion about the incident at 3:30 p.m. Monday, which Jones suggested students attend — although Jones added not to expect action on the part of the university stemming from the discussion.
Jones said that she is prepared to bring in outside parties to help students mobilize around addressing this incident and pushing for the professor’s termination.
“I don’t want to predict anything, but I can say that I will be meeting with community leaders to make sure that students take this as far as possible, and I am at a point where I don’t care about the repercussions that may come from me disassociating myself from the administration,” Jones said. “At this point, I will finish my term the way I started it, and I was elected by students and not by admin, so I’ll stand by that.”
Jones pointed to the slave ship assignment to highlight evidence of multiple racially charged incidents stemming from the same professor’s actions, adding that no person studying slave ships will be able to understand the reality of those who were onboard the ships.
Jones herself has an Africana Studies minor and chose not to take the professor’s course after hearing about the slave ship assignment, stating she did not want to experience that kind of “traumatizing environment.”
“Racism is like a tumor. You have to spot it, and you have to get it out,” Jones said. “Anti-racism is not cute. It’s not for people who are fragile. You have to be strong, and you have to have some courage when it comes to that, and so if the university doesn’t feel like they can align with the statements that they made this summer during the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, then they’ve made it very clear through this situation and other situations that it was only lip service and that they didn’t mean that,” Jones said.
In addition to contacting UTK, Jones called the president of the local NAACP chapter at 6 a.m. Thursday to discuss how to handle the situation. She then met with members of student organizations to compile a statement released on the Student Government Association’s Instagram page.
“In the field of academia, there is oftentimes where we feel this elitist mindset that we can approach words out of the name of scholarship, and I mentioned that to admin as well, but when you approach words, I’ve learned through Africana Studies programs myself while reading Toni Morrison, that words have power,” Jones said. “Words have power, and you as a scholar, as a professor, as an educator, even as a student, you have to know how to handle words carefully because words have power. So there is carelessness that is in this school, and there is a high level of inappropriate nature when it comes to the communication that the university has made so far.”
The professor responded to the situation regarding the slur written on the white board, stating that they used the acronym as a “teaching tool.”
The following statement, created with a voice-to-text feature, contains typos.
“I don’t often worry about being missed quoted in a visual sense, but I would certainly like to make a statement apologizing for anyone out offended. Clearly this is an excellent opportunity during Black History Month for both black and white people to learn something useful that will move us closer to true equity,” the faculty member said. “Also, I would greatly appreciate an opportunity to provide an adequate context for the reference (it is not a racial slur, as I quote the acronym as Tupac created it- as a teaching tool).”
Sunday afternoon, the university released an update on the situation, which explained that the university has been meeting with students from the class, as well as other students who raised concerns about the incident. Additionally, the Division of Diversity and Engagement and Office of Teaching and Learning Innovation met with students who were in the Africana Studies class.
The statement did not indicate that the university plans on terminating the professor involved — who, as aforementioned, is not tenured.
“Beginning immediately, the faculty member will work with the university’s Office of Teaching and Learning Innovation to improve her presentation of difficult, potentially painful topics in a way that is sensitive to the history and lived experiences of her students and the broader community. The university will provide another instructor for the next two weeks to support students’ continued learning in the class while the instructor begins her work with TLI,” the statement said.
After holding her roundtable Monday, Plowman explained the university's decision not to fire the professor, stating that the university will continue to listen to students regarding this and other situations.
“Several students shared painful stories of their experiences on our campus and the message was clear—many of our students of color are hurting," Plowman said. "I heard stories of not feeling heard that are bigger than this circumstance, and we need to address that in our student programs, our systems, structures, and processes. Firing a faculty member will not fix that. Work is happening, and I recognize it does not feel fast enough. ... We know some of our students disagree with our recent actions in regards to the faculty member, and we respect their rights to do so.”
Professor Shayla C. Nunnally, chair of the Africana Studies Program, released a statement about the situation on the program’s website last week, in which the department apologized on behalf of the professor involved.
“Without context and the acronym alone, this word presents a very painful and derogatory one that is not only uncomfortable, but also hurtful and troubling. But, it is the context of this discussion and this word that begs knowledge-building,” Nunnally said. “We and our faculty member sincerely apologize for the pain that this lecture about the acronym and its meaning for the ‘n-word’ has caused. We do not take it lightly that members of the UT community and friends and others elsewhere feel the pain of seeing the image that captured this acronym.“
Nunnally stated that the incident, which took place during the present Black History Month, has spurred a discussion around the “n-word,” and the university will be bringing in “expert scholars” to educate the community on the usage of the word.
“I also wish to point out that our faculty member has expertise and focuses research on Hip Hop and Africana Studies. To our knowledge the class discussion also shed light on even Tupac’s acronym, ‘The Hate U Give Little Infants F (the ’f-word’) Everyone,‘ to illustrate, as the professor mentioned, the power of wordplay in reclamation and empowerment,” Nunnally said. “However, we understand that even visual imagery, a snapshot from a discussion can become memetic, and we are so sorry that the fuller context of this discussion could not also be captured. We are also sorry about this representation of the word and the hurt that it has brought so many people.”