A Monash University teaching associate is being investigated and has been suspended, pending the resolution of the probe, after students complained he repeatedly used the N-word in class.
Gary Lacey, who has worked at Monash University for 23 years, used the N-word “quite liberally” in the 8am Monday class From Freud to Friends: Ethnic identity in popular culture, student Meredith Leviston wrote on a university Facebook group.
Gary Lacey said he apologised to his students when he realised they were upset.
Leviston said a student walked into the class midway through and told Lacey she felt uncomfortable by his use of the word and that there was no reason for him to use it.
“I was in the 10am class where he proceeded to seemingly brag about the incident,” Leviston said.
“He downplayed a lot of the details and continued to use the N-word and went on a lot about people being offended by everything. It was just very … uncomfortable and I don’t think it’s the right approach for any class that discusses such delicate and triggering topics.”
Lacey, whose wife is Kenyan, told The Age he apologised to his students when he realised they were upset and said he didn’t mean to offend them. The incident happened at the Clayton campus.
Monash University’s Clayton campus.Credit:Wayne Taylor
“I have apologised profusely. I’m genuinely deeply sorry I’ve offended people,” Lacey said.
“This was an academic discussion – it’s not the case of a racist running around using racist language. I did make a commitment to change that behaviour.”
Lacey said his class had been discussing the use and history of the word, that he had given context and that he didn’t use the euphemism “the N-word” because he felt that gave the word more power.
They were discussing an episode of US TV series The Office – Diversity Day– and a Chris Rock routine, which led to a discussion that “some racial pejoratives had been reclaimed by communities and this is an attempt to disempower the word”.
“Part way through this discussion, someone walked into the room who wasn’t in the class. She happened to be black, and she heard the word being used a few times and not knowing the context of it,” he said.
“She was offended and I apologised profusely and tried to explain the context in which we were using it so she didn’t feel this was me running around saying rude words and trying to be offensive. She was understandably angry and left. Then some of the other students decided that I was offensive.
“That’s something I’ve learnt from this – that different people will interpret things differently.”
Lacey denied bragging about the incident to the later class and said he had a “strong recollection” of telling them that it had offended people in the earlier lesson. He said he couldn’t be certain that he hadn’t used the word once to illustrate that he would instead be using the euphemism for the rest of the class. “It’s not like I was bandying the word around,” he said.
He said he was waiting for the university to give him an opportunity to discuss the issue as part of its investigation.
Sebastian Schultz, from the Monash University student union, said the organisation was deeply troubled by the incident and condemned it. He said the union had been contacted by concerned students and staff and was working to contact students who were in the class.
“While we recognise the importance of academic freedom and the need to critically engage with sensitive topics, we must also acknowledge that the use of offensive language is not acceptable under any circumstances,” Schultz said.
“Such behaviour only serves to hinder the development of safe and supportive learning environments. It is incumbent upon us to approach discussions of race and other sensitive issues with sensitivity, compassion, and respect for all perspectives.”
Schultz said using racial slurs can cause severe harm and perpetuate systemic discrimination.
The union said it wanted to work closely with staff and students to ensure the investigation resulted in significant change.
Retired teacher and adjunct senior lecturer Niranjan Casinader said he knew racial slurs were used in educational settings, but that it was ethical to warn students in advance and only say them “in a minimal fashion if possible”.
He said giving students the option to leave the class was another technique in making sure students felt comfortable.
“You’re meant to warn students that this is something that might offend them. I wouldn’t just start using them without any forewarning,” he said.
Monash student Anukruti Pathak attended one of Lacey’s later tutorials and said she felt deeply uncomfortable when he pivoted the class discussion to comedian Dave Chappelle’s use of the N-word.
“I felt like that was kind of strange and a lot of the class felt uncomfortable with that,” she said.
A Monash University spokesperson said the institution was investigating student complaints from a recent tutorial and an alternative tutor had been allocated in the meantime.
“Monash University is committed to fostering a safe, inclusive and respectful environment for everyone and are proud of our richly diverse and culturally inclusive community,” the spokesperson said.
“Monash does not tolerate racism of any kind. We encourage our staff and students to report any type of behaviour they believe is inappropriate to our respectful communities team or the relevant authorities.”
The spokesperson said the university provides 24/7 counselling support for students and a mental health emergency phone line.
“Counselling support is available for staff through Monash’s employee assistance program, and university health services.”
The Monash University African Society declined to comment.
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