Students say French lecturer repeatedly says ‘n-word’ amid department’s ‘culture of racism’

Students claim the lecturer has said the n-word in both French and English on three occasions since 2021

French students at Manchester University have signed an open letter to the head of the school of arts, languages and cultures accusing the French department of tolerating a “culture of racism” and “dominance of whiteness”.

The letter, addressed to Professor Thomas Schmidt, focuses on one lecturer who students claim has said the n-word in both English and French on three occasions since November 2021 despite the second two occasions coming after a meeting with the school’s head of equality, diversity and inclusion about their behaviour.

The students, who wrote the letter following a meeting of black students about the need to tackle “systemic racism” within the department, have accused senior lecturer, Dr Barbara Lebrun of “perpetuating racism” and say some black students avoid taking her Race and Empire module because “they have no confidence the class would be taught sensitively”.

Dr Lebrun told The Manchester Tab she takes the matter “extremely seriously” and added she “fully supports the students’ demands to take anti-racism seriously and improve our content and practice”.

The open letter was published on Tuesday afternoon the same time students staged a protest by walking out of their French lecture. Leaving their lecture theatre, students handed out posters saying: “The French department is letting its lecturers say the n-word” as well as a QR code to the open letter which they are encouraging other students to sign.

The letter begins by documenting the first time Dr Lebrun is alleged to have used the n-word. On the 25th November 2021, in a seminar about French colonial human zoos, students say the lecturer described the connotations of the word “n*grillon” (which translates as p*ccaninny) as like the “difference between n*gro and n*****”. They say that Dr Lebrun did not read the n-word from a text but chose to “deliberately say this violently anti-black word”.

The letter then says in September 2022, a black student in this class reported the incident to Dr Sheena Kalayil, the head of equality, diversity and inclusion for the school of arts, languages and cultures. At the same time, the student disclosed they had received feedback for an essay plan in May 2022 from Dr Lebrun which told them not to be “tempted to use [their] essay as a platform for personal exasperation or indignation around racism”.

Alongside the head of modern languages and cultures, Professor Julia Dobson, it says Dr Kalayil told the student they agreed “these behaviours are not conducive to the inclusive place we would like University of Manchester to be”. Dr Kalayil also organised a “refresher” course for all staff in the school.

The open letter says Dr Lebrun wanted to apologise to the student in person however the student was unwilling to accept an individual apology and wished for an apology to the whole seminar group. It was decided amongst senior staff that this “would not be feasible”.

This term students have accused the lecturer of saying the n-word again, this time in French. The students shared a screen recording of a lecture given from her Race and Empire module. In the first week’s lecture, recorded on 30th January, she reads out a quote from a 1957 book, Mythologies by Roland Barthes. From the extract she says the word “n*gre” and adds: “The word n*gre is unfortunate but normal for authors in the 1950s up until the 1970s, it means black.”

A screenshot of the lecture slide in question

However, students claim this is “false” and say the Oxford Hachette French Dictionary translates the word to “n*****”. You can watch the recording here.

The open letter says Dr Lebrun then used the term “n*gre” again “multiple times” during seminars earlier this month on the 2nd February.

Dr Lebrun told The Manchester Tab her support “to take anti-racism seriously and to improve our content and practice includes the quotation of colonial-era racist language in classes that precisely deal with the critical deconstruction of racist stereotypes”.

The students say her alleged actions are only the “tip of the iceberg” and claim that there is “a broader, entrenched pattern of teaching that upholds white supremacy within the course she oversees”.

In the letter, the students say that it is not only about using the n-word but the “culture of academic racism” within the department. They argue the entire programme is “pedagogically flawed in how it allows European perspectives to dominate and overshadow opportunities for holistic and critical thinking about the Francophone world”.  They also criticise the Race and Empire module for having zero female black authors in the unit’s general reading list.

They conclude the letter by outlining their demands. These include:

  • Co-creating “robust guidelines around the use of derogatory language and slurs in the classroom” with students from marginalised backgrounds.
  • An immediate programme review in consultation with students
  • An equal split between studying France and the Francophone world from 2024/25 onwards
  • The French department contact external anti-racism practitioners to deliver regular training

They are clear that Dr Lebrun should not be involved in achieving the above.

The students finish the letter by saying: “If black lives really matter to the university, if black students really matter to you, Professor Schmidt, as the Head of SALC (School of arts, languages and cultures), then you will help us to implement the changes we have outlined above to ensure that the French department is no longer complicit in structural racism.”

They have invited fellow students to add their signatures to the open letter. They are calling for Professor Schmidt to respond to them by 5pm next Monday, the 20th February.

A spokesperson for the University of Manchester said: “We have been made aware of the letter and the events during the lecture and we are investigating as a priority. We are fully committed to equality, diversity and inclusion in all of our activities.”

The School of arts, languages and cultures was also approached for comment.

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Featured image before edits via Twitter/@KidsOfColourHQ