Unfortunately, I spend a lot of time writing about the use of the n-word by law professors. You may think that it doesn’t come up that often, but you’re wrong, very wrong. What about the thrill of inappropriateness that leads the white law professor to put on a cloak of “academic freedom” and just let the whole N-word fly?
Anyway, when Above the Law received a message about John Marshall Law Professor Jason Kilborn’s “dark and hideous comment on Civil Process II Exam” and the question in question “contained a racial devaluation summed up as:” n____ ” and ‘b____’ (mundane terms for African American and women) ”” I turned on my keyboard and got ready to do the prof. But as I got into the subject, it became clear that there was a lot more going on.
The petition is a call to action for “insensitive and racist content” in the exam, and when I first read the petition I got the impression that the professor had used the full sheet for the exam. (And I bet a lot of other people who read the petition and may have signed it thought so too.) But this petition doesn’t sum up“The test as it pretends – it provides a direct quote. By that I mean that the exam did not use the full n-word (or b-word), but opted for the euphemism instead. Which is … the exact type of adjustment and awareness of potentially traumatic racial issues that people have asked about in the past when professors claim the right to drop the full n word just because it is in an academic setting .
Nobody wants to be in a place where discussion about how racism shapes the legal system is forbidden. Turn on the news and it’s very clear that white supremacy is way behind us and continues to affect the law. Legal education has to have these admittedly difficult discussions, but finding the right balance is important.
Kilborn provided the following context for the decision to use the question (and notes that he has used the same question with the euphemism for 10 years without incident):
Discrimination in the workplace is one of the most common issues in federal civil litigation, and our textbook authors make frequent use of this context so it is sure to be appropriately contextual. I have also tried to recognize the challenges that women of color still face in the workplace and the important role of civil procedure in detecting and addressing these mistakes. The only question seems to be whether it was problematic for me to say exactly (in short form to avoid actually using those awful words) what the manager had heard from others. I don’t want anyone to feel needlessly desperate during a high stakes exam, but I’m just stunned by the reaction here for the first time in ten years when I consistently passed this exact question on to classes as diverse as that who have taken this exam this semester (although I don’t know exactly who is reacting this way or why, as no one in the leadership of this campaign against me tried to communicate with me in any way).
As a white man, I have no idea what it would be like to read an abbreviated form of the arc on an exam. And according to the Law School Black Law Students Association, the students who took the exam were upset by the language:
And here is the full statement from BLSA on the matter:
BLSA would like to draw attention to the inexcusable use of “N___” and “B____” in a civil process examination II. This arc shocked the students and created a great distraction from the exam. pic.twitter.com/t720HVllZb
– UIC JMLS Black Law Student Association (@uic_jmls_blsa), December 30, 2020
Unlike other professors who have been exposed to inappropriate language, Kilborn has neither tried academic freedom nor insisted that he knew what is best for students or sued law school for reverse discrimination (all actual reactions from professors, natch). He seems genuinely concerned about the whole matter and has apologized for using the abbreviated form of the word for the test (something else that legal professionals are not known to be). Kilborn said about the law:
I am fully willing to take responsibility for using a context and quick reference from the first letter that made someone feel desperate. I did not want to and absolutely did not want that, I regretted it and learned something valuable here. But the correct way that BLSA and others here are reacting is different from what they did and I hope you are not promoting this unnecessary, unjustified and unconstructive attack on me. If someone accidentally runs into you on the street and quickly says, “Hey, I’m sorry,” I hope neither of us will agree that the appropriate answer is to pounce on that person, beat them mercilessly, and Spread all kinds of name-calling about them to their employers and all over the internet. BLSA has actively pursued a campaign against me by contacting (1) UIC central administration, (2) my dean, (3) Instagram, (4) LinkedIn, (5) Channel 2 news and possibly other news outlets as well (6) Formally filing a complaint with the Office of Access and Justice. This is the UIC office dealing with alleged discrimination and harassment cases. When my dean mentioned to me that there was a problem with my question, I suggested expressing my regret that I had disturbed someone and the dean contacted the OAE with their view. A representative from this office was provided with the question and context and we had a Zoom call that evening where the representative assured me I had done nothing wrong at all, but she supported my idea of expressing regret, when i gave my answer using this question made everyone uncomfortable. I did that and here we are still …
I love my students – ANY AND EVERYONE of them, and I have done everything I can to support the careers of women of skin color and others. I’ve done my best to use the same first letter reference to this word that I see all over the internet, including the comment from people explaining that it is completely inappropriate to use the word – and they point to it as “the n -word” – again, that’s exactly what I did. It is … a disservice to the role the law plays in our troubled society to be viewed as some kind of insensitive fanatic for using the same first letter reference to a terrible word that civil proceedings exterminate and address is supposed to be the role we lawyers must play in order to root it out and eradicate it.
The law school made the following statement regarding the incident:
The law school recognizes the implications of this problem. Before the winter break, Dean Dickerson apologized to students who felt hurt and desperate about the exam question. The Law School admits that the racist and gender references on the exam were deeply offensive. Faculty should avoid language that could harm and distress students. Those with tenure and academic freedom should always remember their position of power in our system of legal education.
The Law School is working with the UIC Office of Access and Justice to conduct a thorough review of this matter, and Dean Dickerson and other law school and university directors have scheduled a meeting with student directors. We remain committed to ensuring that all of our students have a safe and supportive environment and that all members of the law school community live up to our shared values.
It seems like an honest, open conversation is exactly what is needed. Whether or not you think Kilborn should have included this detail in the exam is a fair question, but he has at least tried to be aware of the sensitivity of the subject and seems determined to do better.
Kathryn Rubino is Senior Editor at Above the Law and host of The Jabot podcast. AtL tipsters are the best so please connect with her. Feel free to email her tips, questions, or comments and follow her on Twitter (@ Kathryn1).