American University Students Condemn Use of N-Word

A video of an American University student unabashedly using the n-word quickly went viral on Saturday, April 6. Freshman Aise O’Neil was caught repeatedly saying the word in a common area of Anderson Hall by fellow student Tasneem Osman. Osman shared a video of the racist incident with the caption, “This is why I don’t feel welcomed at American University.” The 16-second video has been viewed over 77,000 times and shared by more than 300 people. It caused outrage among American University students, alumni, and faculty, and prompted the university to issue a statement.

“We do not condone the use of racist language. We recognize the harmful impact,” American University said in a statement on April 7. “It is vital that we recognize the historical context of the language we use. A slur that has been used in the context of racism, bigotry, discrimination, and violence does harm when it is used without understanding its context and painful impact on members of our community.” The university said it was working with the students involved. It noted that the next steps would be guided by the student code of conduct and “restorative processes that begin to repair trust and relationships.”

But students say it’s not enough for the university to use the incident as a teaching moment. Nickolaus Mack, a 22-year-old graduating senior, told The North Star that the incident “wasn’t particularly surprising” but that he hopes American University will move towards a zero-tolerance policy regarding racist incidents on campus. He added that students should take responsibility for their actions.

“Students are fully aware of their intent in using racist terminology like the n-word and are capable of making erroneous contextual distinctions between the when and where of their usage of the n-word,” Mack wrote in an op-ed for the student newspaper The Eagle. “By pretending that this is a matter of middle-ground arbitration, our campus serves as a refuge and incubator for students who are willing and able to feign racial ignorance.”

Mack noted that O’Neil was part of American University Experience (AUx), a full-year course that teaches students about identity, including race, sexuality, and gender. By saying his name after using the n-word, O’Neil showed “audacity,” Mack said, adding that students who feel empowered to say racial slurs have not been in environments where they must face the consequences for their actions and words.

In a statement to The Eagle, O’Neil said he used the n-word because he was upset “how censorial the campus environment was.” He said his dorm neighbor overheard him and he was approached by students about his usage of the word while in a common area.

“I argued that there was nothing inherently wrong with the usage of my words,” he told The Eagle. “I was dared to say the word on video. Believing that a refusal would in a sense be a betrayal of my principles I obliged.” However, students and alumni have been vocal on social media about the need for a zero-tolerance policy against racism at the university.

“This is disgusting. My experience with racism at AU was obviously not of the same calibre (sic), but I remember during my first week I spoke Spanish and a white student asked me if I was ‘legal.’ PWI’s breed white supremacy and @AmericanU needs to take action,” American University alumna Gabriella Salazar tweeted.

Members of American’s faculty have also spoken up. Ibram X. Kendi, a professor at American University and director of the Antiracist Research & Policy Center, expressed support for a zero-tolerance policy at the university. “We @AmericanU & other universities should have zero tolerance for racism,” Kendi wrote on Twitter. “Anything less than a zero tolerance policy is tolerance for racism. We show our zero tolerance–or tolerance for racism–by how we respond. Bottom line: Who & what do we want to feel welcome on our campuses?”

Fellow professor Christopher Petrella, director of advocacy and strategic partnerships for the Antiracism Research & Policy Center, asked what white members of the university’s faculty, staff, and students were doing to make the campus anti-racist. He later sent a message of support for Black students on Twitter. “Sending love, strength, and solidarity to AU’s Black identifying students today and on all days,” he wrote.

About the Author

Nicole Rojas is a breaking news writer for The North Star. She has published in various venues, including Newsweek, GlobalPost, IHS Jane's Defence Weekly, and the Long Island Post. Nicole graduated from Boston University in 2012 with a degree in print journalism. She is an avid world traveler who recently explored Asia and Australia.