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OU professor uses N-word in class while reading MLK letter

Bizzell Memorial Library

The Bizzell Memorial Library on Nov 16, 2022.

Editor’s note: An OU Daily staffer is a student who was present in the classroom during the incident this story references and contributed to this story as a source.

An OU professor said an anti-Black slur during a class Tuesday, three OU students confirmed to OU Daily. 

The students said Karen Feiner, an assistant teaching professor, used the N-word while reading a portion of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” during their first-year English composition course on the first day of the spring semester. Feiner had the class read the letter to present the topic of empathy and honor MLK Day in class.

The students, Brady Videll, philosophy and economics freshman, Teegan Smith, OU Daily news reporter and journalism and Spanish freshman, and a student whose identity is known to OU Daily but requested anonymity because they didn’t want to be personally involved, said Feiner did not issue a trigger warning or otherwise preface that she’d say the slur.  

In “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” the N-word appears twice. Feiner read the portion of the letter where the word is first stated. 

“...when your first name becomes 'n-----,' your middle name becomes 'boy' (however old you are) and your last name becomes 'John,' and your wife and mother are never given the respected title 'Mrs.' … ," the letter reads. 

Students in another section of Feiner’s class later in the day said she did not say the N-word while reading the letter. 

When asked about the matter at Friday morning’s OU Board of Regents meeting in Oklahoma City, OU President Joseph Harroz Jr. said the administration is investigating the situation. 

“It’s incredibly disappointing that that word would be used, even in historical context,” Harroz Jr. said. “When that word is used, it doesn't have to be used. It has a very negative impact. Hard stop.” 

According to a university statement sent to OU Daily at 11:50 a.m. on Friday, OU will address the incident with Feiner and the students.  

“While the intention of reading from this historical document was to lead a respectful discussion on King’s powerful rhetoric condemning racism, the faculty member read the 'N-word' from the text and immediately realized the negative impact,” the statement reads. “While the historical document includes the racist term for the very purpose of emphasizing its offensiveness, and the professor’s choice to recite the word is protected speech, this does not diminish the painful impact such racist language can have.”

According to a regents meeting on June 21, 2016, Feiner was hired at the university as a five-year renewable term appointment. She received her doctorate of philosophy at Purdue University in 2015. She previously taught at Loyola Marymount University, according to her Facebook page.

OU Daily went to Feiner’s office around 5:30 p.m. Thursday but she was not present. OU Daily called Feiner Thursday at 5:45 p.m. and left a voicemail when she did not answer. OU Daily also emailed Feiner at 11:06 a.m. Friday. 

As of 12:17 p.m. on Friday, Feiner has not returned OU Daily’s call or email. 

At 9:44 p.m. on Thursday, Feiner emailed Smith and asked him to explain his experience to Roxanne Mountford, OU’s chair of the department of English and director of first-year composition. 

“It seems I am a hot topic in the OU Daily right about now,” Feiner wrote in the email. “Some students took offense to my use of the n-word while reading from 'Letter from a Birmingham Jail' and reported it to the OU Daily.” 

She asked Smith to share his recollection of Tuesday, adding that she would not be part of the conversation and respects any thoughts he’d potentially have regarding the situation. 

“If you are willing to talk to (Mountford), please let me know and I will send her your contact information,” the email reads. “If you prefer not to speak with her, I completely understand. If I could avoid being part of this mess, I absolutely would.” 

As of fall 2021, 57.6 percent of OU’s enrolled students are white, according to the university’s most recent factbook. As of 2021, 5.4 percent of the university’s enrolled students are Black. 

Tuesday’s event marks the third time in three years an OU professor is known to have said the N-word in a class setting. In February 2020, Peter Gade, a now-retired professor in the Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communications, and Kathleen Brosnan, a faculty member in OU's history department, said the slur in class. 

Gade used the N-word in comparison to the phrase “OK, boomer.”

At that time, Harroz said Gade’s use of the word compelled the administration to start working on a new plan to address these issues, which included a diversity, equity and inclusion training program for OU faculty, staff and administration that addresses implicit biases, along with the development of an incident response protocol.

Brosnan read the word from a historical document in a class that covers U.S. history from the Civil War to present day. She issued a trigger warning before using the word. 

In response, Harroz said in a statement the trigger warning did not “lessen the pain” inflicted by Brosnan’s choice to read the word.

“It is common sense to avoid uttering the most offensive word in the English language, especially in an environment where the speaker holds the power,” Harroz said at the time.

Editor's note: It is OU Daily style to use "n-----" when directly quoting the racial slur it refers to.

news managing editor

Alexia Aston is a journalism junior and the news managing editor at the Daily. She started at the Daily in the fall of 2020 and has previously served as a news reporter, senior news reporter and news editor. She is originally from Clinton, Oklahoma.

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