When first-year student Michelle Simpson discovered that a classmate had posted a course outline containing an abbreviated form of the N-word on a website used by Harvard Law students, she was not surprised. Growing up in Nashville, Tenn., Simpson said that she has seen racism before and would see it again.
Still, Simpson felt that she had to do something. Simpson complained to HLCentral, the organization whose website has a link to the popular outline database hosted by a Record server, and the outline was removed. For his part, Kiwi Camara, the student who posted the notes, has apologized and said that posting the outlines was a “mistake” and a “miscalculation.”
That much about the incident is clear. What is unclear is why Camara used the word in the first place, whether it reveals larger racial problems at the Law School and how the school should react.
Simpson said that she learned about the outlines from a friend who mentioned them during a discussion of comments on race that had been made in their Criminal Law class. When she went to the outline database, Simpson discovered that two course outlines posted by Camara had disclaimers warning users that the notes could contain racially offensive shorthand. One of those outlines as well as a third outline used the abbreviation, “nig.” The issue in the famous Shelly v. Kraemer, for example, was framed, “Nigs buy land w/ no nig covenant; Q: Enforceable?”
For Simpson, the references were simply unacceptable on a public website.
“Just to use that word is unintelligent. It adds nothing and it takes away so much,” Simpson said.
Moreover, Simpson said, the word was not used as part of an intellectual debate.
“It wasn’t in an argument of why we should or should not use the word. It was just the use of it as if that is what they are referred to for the common person,” she said.
When Simpson learned that posted outlines were not hand-screened, she decided to ask that the outlines be taken down and that a disclaimer be placed on the website.
“I just wanted the outlines down. I thought that word didn’t need to be in the outlines,” Simpson said.
Because both Simpson and Camara are in the 1L Section Four, she emailed classmates as well as the section’s professors about the situation. Additionally, she sent a copy of the outlines to members of the Black Law Student’s Association (BLSA).
Although the outlines have been removed, Simpson said there is a much larger issue.
“This issue is not about Kiwi. There are a lot of people in our class who probably feel the same way that he does but won’t express it in the way he does or won’t express it at all. It is something that we [African-Americans] have dealt with all our lives and will continue to deal with all our lives. It would be so easy and good if it were just him and we shut him up or got him to change his mind and all the world were better. But it’s not,” Simpson said.
What no one, including Camara, is able to answer is why he knowingly used the word in the first place.
When asked why he uses the word, Camara replied, “I avoid the word strenuously in public conversation, I don’t think the general pejorative conception of the word captures my views on race. I think it’s quite far from my views on race. I don’t view myself as a racist. I can’t give you, I can’t give me a satisfactory answer to that question.”
What Camara said he does know is that he sometimes uses the word in his notes and he hoped that by positing a disclaimer he could avoid causing offense.
“I didn’t know what particular offensive terms I might have used,” he said. “And at the same time, my thought process was, ‘Look I’ve composed my notes. I don’t have a perfect knowledge of what’s in them, but I know that I, as a 1L, would find them useful. I know that occasionally offensive things slip into my private work, so why don’t I warn people that if you would be offended by such things, don’t look.'”
Looking back Camara said that he realizes that he should not have posted the outlines and agrees that they were properly removed. He also said that in the future he would make an effort not use similar words, even privately.
“I will make a much more conscious attempt than I have made not to do so. I can’t guarantee it. I certainly will not be sharing anything further on HLCentral,” he said.
Camera said that he knows what it’s like being a minority.
“I have some experience with discrimination … I’m Filipino in the United States. The first school I attended was a Jewish school and I’m not Jewish,” Camera said. “I had some experiences of discrimination there. I had some experiences of discrimination living in Cleveland, because I was Asian.”
Camara added: “I wouldn’t compare those experiences to what other folks who are offended by this term might feel. I don’t think the experiences are comparable. I think they depend on the life experiences of the particular person who sees the term.”
Now Camara says that he wants to move on and start a dialogue with other students.
“I wish to clear the air and invite people to talk to me, to send me an email if they want to talk about these issues, come up and pull me aside in Langdell,” he said. “That is part of what the law school is about.”
Students, faculty and staff who learned about the incident responded in different ways. Some are disturbed by it, others see it as a chance to unearth larger racial problems at the law school and beyond, and still others feel that too much attention has already been paid to the incident.
Two of the professors who taught classes that Camara had outlined expressed their sorrow at the incident.
“I was sorry to see what I saw,” Professor Frank Michelman said of the outlines. Similarly, Professor Heather Gerken said, “I was saddened to learn about the incident last week, and I remained concerned about its effect on the community, particularly the extraordinary group of African-American students who are part of Section Four.”
Gerken added that she had spoken with a number of the students in the section and was “heartened by their thoughtful reaction to this event.”
Dean of Students Suzanne Richardson also said that she was concerned about the effect the language would have on the community. She said she is gathering information on what happened and added, “This incident challenges us to respond constructively, and I hope and believe that the balanced good sense of this community will make that possible.”
The student reaction has been slightly more mixed. Section Four student Meaghan McLaine said it was important that the debate not focus solely on the outlines.
“As a group, I do think we need to confront this issue more fully and directly,” she said. “We tend to gloss over race, like justice, in class discussions, or, at most, to tiptoe around it without a full airing. One fear is that the sentiments in the outline aren’t localized to the individual responsible for the outlines; that lurking sense of racism, I think, muffles discussion and inhibits the sense of respect we’ve been developing for each other over recent months.”
But McLaine’s classmate Joe Sibley argued that the incident reveals a “racial double standard” and it was blown up in a type of “racial McCarthyism.”
“If the outline had been submitted by a black student who had put ‘crac.’ or ‘honk.’ as an indicator for a European-American, there would be no controversy,” he said.
Outside of Section Four, some students who learned of the event argue that the issue needs to be addressed by the entire Law School community.
“It is important to impress upon the author and like-minded individuals that principles of human decency and morality render this situation repugnant and intolerable, and this will only occur if students speak out,” said Crisarla Houston, a student who learned about the controversy on the BLSA mailing list.
Houston said that racial issues are the same inside and outside the Law School, but at HLS “some people clothe imm-oral, ignorant prejudices in suits of intellectualism and philosophy. It is more overt, and articulated via different, less assailable methods.”
A less weighty, but still important question is what can be done to prevent this particular type of incident from happening again.
The outline database is housed on a Record Internet server and was at one time a service of Catalyst, an unofficial student organization. The database was originally created and maintained by Dmitri Evseev, who graduated last year and turned over responsibility for maintaining the server to The Record However, because most students access the database through the HLCentral website, that was the group that Michelle Simpson first contacted to complain.
Simpson originally requested that the website tell students that they are not allowed to submit outlines with offensive language. Responding to Simpson for HLCentral, T.J. Duane wrote that a warning could be placed but, “I am reluctant to make any sort of alert that this type of abuse to the system will not be tolerated, as such actions only plant other mischievous and/or offensive ideas into people’s heads (possibly those that wouldn’t have considered it in the first place).”
While Simpson understood Duane’s reasoning, Crisarla Houston felt that a warning should be posted.
“African Americans are clearly the minority at HLS, and attempting to brush this racist incident under the rug by simply removing the outlines after many had already read them and suffered harm reaffirms in some people’s minds that we are not welcomed or valued here,” Houston said.
To make matters more confusing, The Record seems to have taken a different tact than HLCentral. Record Editor Meredith McKee said that the website ought to post a policy telling students “that certain kinds of material are not acceptable.”
She added: “The Record isn’t really in the business of running a server and an outline bank, but the outline bank is a useful service to students, and we are lucky to have someone is able and willing to maintain it.”
The Next Step
Whether or not there will be a warning to students who want to post their class notes online will probably be clear in a week or two. What is not clear is what happens next. The incident has, for some students at least, raised issues of race that need to be discussed.
While Professor Randall Kennedy’s academic treatment of the N-word is climbing The New York Times Bestsellers’ List and creating discussion race nationwide, this incident and similar ones are sparking discussion of race on the campus. Whether those discussions will continue or will affect the community in a lasting way remains to be seen.