The N-word row engulfing SOAS university

21 March 2021

6:00 PM

21 March 2021

6:00 PM

The School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS)’s newly-appointed director, Adam Habib, has become the latest victim of cancel culture having been suspended from the university. His crime? During an online meeting, a student asked Habib if SOAS’s commitment to the BLM movement was sincere, when some academics continued to use racial slurs, particularly the N-word, in the classroom. Habib responded by saying that he would personally address any of these allegations but in doing so, he ‘verbalised’ the word in question. It was a cardinal mistake. The incident caused an uproar at SOAS, with selectively edited versions of the video adding fuel to the fire.

Those on the left at SOAS (which is pretty much the entire student body) soon wanted their pound of Adam Habib’s flesh and now the director has been forced to step down while his comments are investigated.

Habib is a mixed race South African, with impeccable social justice credentials: he has spent most of his life working for academic institutions at the forefront of promoting racial equality in post-apartheid South Africa. Now his downfall has come at the hands of a group of students sitting at home reprimanding him harshly on Zoom about racial sensitivity.

For a university that supposedly wants to engage with uncomfortable issues such as racial injustice, global inequality and human rights, SOAS students are often incredibly sensitive. It is hard to see how you can discuss colonial Africa, racial hierarchies or oppression – themes which appear in a number of SOAS modules – without first acknowledging the existence and connotations of the N-word. Its use in an appropriate academic context, if anything, ensures that the centuries spent combatting racial inequality are not forgotten. Dick Gregory, the famous American comedian and civil rights activist, would surely have agreed: he called his autobiography ‘Nigger: An Autobiography by Dick Gregory’ as an anti-racist statement.

The best study of the word is by the Harvard Professor Randall Kennedy. In his book, Kennedy argued that as long as it is used in an appropriate context, the N-word should be allowed. He believed that ‘we should take comfort from the idea that a word that has miserable, terrible, hurtful roots can be appropriated by folks and made into something very different, including an anti-racist word.’

Having sat in classes where colonial racism in my own nation, India, has been discussed, I have benefited from engaging with these weaponised slurs. It is satisfying to examine words – designed to disempower the generations before me – as an international undergraduate student sitting in a classroom in London. It has a sense of karmic closure. But not allowing certain individuals, depending on their colour or origin, to use these terms in their proper context is just another form of identitarian politics. Ironically, in the name of racial equality, new walls are being formed around our language.

As a former student of the university, SOAS did initially hold a special place in my heart. Being half-Indian and half-Nepalese, the idea of a University focusing specifically on the pressing and often overlooked issues of my subcontinent was a source of fascination. In India, a number of thinkers and academics from the left and right trace their academic origins to SOAS. BJP leader and conservative intellectual Swapan Dasgupta, leading Marxist historian Romila Thapar, and feminist activist Gita Sahgal all spent time at SOAS.

Unfortunately I’ve been left disappointed: It was only after I arrived that I realised the institution was a moth-eaten dogmatic version of its former self and left after a year to study at King’s College London.

The rumour now is that if Habib is unable to revive its financial fortunes, SOAS will be sold off to the highest bidder – which at this point seems likely to be UCL. SOAS students appear unwilling to let Habib undertake any meaningful change (they have challenged his sensible and much-needed financial reforms too), and instead would rather drag him through the quagmire of a scandal. The institution’s end now seems more inevitable by the day. It would be a shame if SOAS disappears. But its treatment of Adam Habib suggests that it has already lost its way.

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