When English 2017 met for lecture Wednesday night, the class didn’t begin with the professor. Instead, the students in Somerville Hall were addressed by the chair of the English department.
Manina Jones spoke to them about the elephant in the room — their professor’s “really regrettable” use of “racist language,” as heard in a recording of the lecture obtained by the Gazette.
A week before, at the class’ last meeting, professor Andrew Wenaus used the term “house [N-word]” when discussing racial language. After the class, fourth-year student Chizoba Oriuwa took to social media, bringing the story to wider media attention; she has since dropped the course.
While Wenaus has since apologized, students in the class told the Gazette how his use of the term made them feel devalued, and how it took some pressing for the professor to address it.
Wenaus did not respond to a request for comment on this article.
As he spoke to students Wednesday night, Wenaus described the incident in his own terms. The professor was discussing an episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. When Will Smith’s character called the show’s butler character a “home butler,” Wenaus said it evoked the pre-emancipation term for house slaves, “house [N-word],” which he said in full.
According to accounts from Oriuwa and two other students in the room, the class fell silent for a few seconds until Wenaus moved on with the topic.
After Wenaus said the slur, Oriuwa — one of the class’ few black students — said she was taken aback.
“I was shocked at how carelessly and nonchalantly he used this word,” she said, adding it resurfaced other racist struggles she has endured during her four years at Western.
What frustrated the students was how Wenaus handled the lecture after saying the word.
“Right after he said it, in my perspective, you could tell he regretted it. He knew he messed up, you could see it in his face — but he didn't acknowledge it or anything,” said Omta Korkis, a second-year popular music studies student.
All three students told the Gazette that Weanus did not apologize in the moment and continued with the class material. He admitted this in lecture this week, saying he “failed” in not immediately addressing using the word.
Instead, according to the students, Wenaus moved on with the lecture.
A few minutes after Wenaus used the term, a black student raised their hand, and called the professor out. He replied he was looking for a reaction from the class.
Maya Simon — a third-year media, information and technoculture student — said she took issue with his rationale. Among the class' only black students, Simon said Wenaus may have come up the explanation it on the spot, but that it was hurtful nonetheless.
“It made me feel like an experiment to him, like the history was an experiment,” said Simon.
After the class ended, Oriuwa spoke to Wenaus about his usage of the term and his reasoning behind it. He reiterated that he was looking for a reaction.
“I told him I believed that was very ignorant of him.” She said, “it is very tone-deaf … that you are not aware of how [the term] can carry such a heavy weight.”
Simon said she sent him an email after the event, and the professor replied with regrets for using the term. He said he would seek help from Western’s Centre for Teaching and Learning to become “better educated in political topics that have emotional background.”
Wenaus has spoken with the centre, he told the class this week.
His apology to the students this week reiterated what he originally told the Gazette, and what was later posted on the Arts and Humanities website. But, Wednesday night’s lecture was the first meeting of a class whose moment-by-moment existence became a campus-wide focus overnight.
Wenaus told the class his use of the N-word was “unacceptable regardless of the context and intent.”
“It hurt people and I very much regret that,” he said. “I was naive … the experience of this term is different depending on who you are.”
He said that his apology is just “the first step” in fixing the situation.
Even though they were shocked, the students said they had faced similar situations before.
“This hasn’t been my first experience with a teacher using this word,” said Simon.