US professor suspended for saying Chinese phrase 'nèi ge' after students complain it sounded like the n-word

Greg Patton from USC.
Greg Patton from USC. Photo credit: YouTube/Reuters

A US university professor has been suspended for saying a Chinese phrase during a class after students complained it sounded like a racial slur.

The professor, Greg Patton from the University of Southern California (USC), was speaking to students last month when he used a Chinese phrase pronounced 'nèi ge'. The word is considered a "filler word" in China, Patton explained, and is used the same way "um" or "err" is in English.

Students were reportedly offended by Patton's use of the phrase they say sounded like the n-word. A new professor has taken over the class as ordered by Geoff Garrett, the university's dean.

"We have lived abroad in China and have taken Chinese language courses at several colleges and this phrase, clearly and precisely before [an] instruction is always identified as a phonetic homonym and a racial derogatory term, and should be carefully used, especially in the context of speaking Chinese within the social context of the United States," the students wrote in an email to the college administration, seen by National Review.

"Our mental health has been affected."

A petition defending Patton, which is calling for him to be reinstated and attracted more than 8000 signatures, argues the phrase was "clearly" not used as a racial slur.

The petition says the discussion's context was "clearly an academic lecture" and for Patton to be reprimanded "simply because a Chinese word sounds like an English pejorative term is a mistake and is not appropriate".

But the students argued it "has impacted our ability to focus adequately on our studies", National Review reports.

Campus Reform reported that Patton had agreed to go on leave.

"Recently, a USC faculty member during class used a Chinese word that sounds similar to a racial slur in English," the university said in a statement. 

"We acknowledge the historical, cultural, and harmful impact of racist language," the statement said, as reported by Campus Reform.