When a black student at Seattle University's Matteo Ricci College asked Dean Jodi Kelly for a more diversified curriculum, the dean responded by plucking a book from her shelf and suggesting the student read it. The book was Nigger, published in 1964 by the comedian and activist Dick Gregory.
The student, who asked not to be named, shared her account of the incident on Thursday after university president Stephen Sundborg pleaded with a group of students occupying the college to drop their demand that Kelly resign. The occupation entered its third day on Friday.
Sundborg sat with the group, praised the students for their activism, and said they had helped open his eyes to internalized racism. But he insisted they were taking the wrong approach by asking Kelly to resign.
"I do not believe that demanding the resignation of the dean is a way of attempting to [address racism] together," Sundborg said. "It sets up an opposition."
An African-American student at the college spoke in response. She said she met last spring with Kelly to ask for a more diverse, culturally responsive curriculum. In response, Kelly "used the n-word... she said it three or four times. The full word."
In the student's telling, Dean Kelly said the student could reclaim the word if she wanted to, citing a black comedian's comments.
The student said she broke down after her meeting with the dean.
"I did not go to class," she said to Sundborg and the assembled protesters. "That word still hurts... It is not her place to tell me not to be offended. This woman needs to be removed. I'm worried about the students that come after me."
"I don't want this to be the reason she resigns," the student told me when I approached her after she spoke. "Everyone has stories. But this was just too traumatic."
Sundborg, who didn't say anything as students applauded and comforted the student, left the room. The student said she felt overwhelmed and did not want to give her name.
I e-mailed Kelly yesterday seeking comment. The dean confirmed the conversation took place, saying she referred the student to the decades-old book by Gregory. Pressed to clarify whether she said the word out loud when she spoke with the student, Kelly was evasive. Here is our our e-mail exchange:
Dear Mr. Herz,
I remember speaking with a student about Dick Gregory’s book by that title. Perhaps you know the work? I am not in the habit of repeating titles, and certainly not that one, but I did refer her to that book.
Thank you for asking.
I was unfamiliar with the book, but I’ve just Googled it. Thanks. I’m a little unclear: Are you saying you referred her to the book, but didn’t say the title out loud when you did so?
The student asked for more diversified reading. I complied and pulled the book from my shelf. The title, as you know, could startle, so I relayed the story of Dick Gregory explaining to his maternal ancestors why he titled it that way. His response? "Dear Momma — Wherever you are, if ever you hear the word "nigger" again, remember they are advertising my book.”
I am not in the habit of ever using that word, Mr. Herz. I believe it demeans us all.—
Appreciate you elaborating. Unfortunately, still unclear. Can you tell me, yes or no:
When you referred the book to her, did you say the title of it out loud?
Kelly and spokespersons for Seattle University did not respond further.