The N-word incident at ACES 2019, part 2

I’m disappointed in the ACES Executive Board’s statement about the incident in which a presenter said the N-word during a presentation at ACES 2019.

My post here is a long discussion of the Board’s statement—first my responses to what they wrote, then a description of some things I wish they had said, then a couple of recommendations for things to improve.

(Note: I don’t speak for my employers.)

My interpretation of the gist of what the Board wrote is that they feel that the conference’s code of conduct doesn’t prohibit what the presenter said, and that they therefore feel there wasn’t a problem.


Here are some of my reactions to their statement:

  • They point out that the code of conduct says “Except when being used as examples for training purposes, discriminatory language and imagery cannot be used at any activity related to the conference or other ACES events.” They call that “the” relevant section, but I feel that it’s only one potentially relevant section.

    For example, earlier in the code of conduct, it says “Everyone, regardless of sex, gender identity and expression, orientation, physical or mental ability, appearance, race, ethnicity, age, religion, or professional status, must feel welcomed and included.” The presenter in this case absolutely did not make everyone in that room feel welcomed and included.

    The code also says “[…] everyone must exercise consideration, and give personal and professional respect in speech and actions. […] be alert to someone’s reaction indicating that you may be making them feel uncomfortable.” The presenter in this case didn’t exercise consideration or respect, and didn’t react well to being told that she had made at least some of her audience feel uncomfortable.

    So which of those clauses of the code of conduct takes precedence in a case like this?

    The code also says “The ACES executive committee will be solely responsible for interpreting and applying this code,” so I guess the answer to which clause takes precedence is whichever one the Board decides on. But in this case, the Board didn’t acknowledge that there was a conflict among those clauses.

  • It’s worth noting, too, that it’s possible for an action to be hurtful, inappropriate, and/or wrong even if it doesn’t violate the code of conduct.
  • That said, if the code of conduct doesn’t prohibit what the presenter in this case did, then I feel that the code of conduct should be improved. See below for some specific suggestions.
  • I do understand the use-mention distinction—the idea that there’s a difference between using a word and referring to it—and I agree that making that distinction is worthwhile in some contexts. In particular, I agree that there are some contexts in which a presenter may need to explicitly say or write a given derogatory word in full.

    However, I would argue that (a) in those circumstances, audiences should be given a content warning well ahead of time, and (b) such mentions should be made only when really necessary, and (c) the bar for when it’s okay for someone to mention a given word (when the speaker isn’t part of the group who the word is generally applied to) should be higher the more harmful a given word is.

    In the US, the N-word is widely recognized as being one of the most harmful racial slurs in English. The bar for a non-black presenter mentioning that word in full should be extraordinarily high. I can’t think of a context in which I would consider it appropriate for mention by a non-black person in an ACES presentation, and I especially can’t think of such a context where the word needs to be said in full, instead of being replaced by the standard euphemism. But even if there is such a context, mention of a word this incendiary should come with a warning ahead of time; non-black presenters shouldn’t just mention the word out of the blue in an unrelated context.

  • I don’t feel that the presenter was using this word for “training purposes.” If what this speaker did counts as “training purposes,” then I feel like any mention of any slur in any ACES presentation counts as training purposes. If the Board means to suggest that any mention of any slur in a presentation is okay, then I don’t think that the phrase “training purposes” is the right framing for that idea. If the distinction that the Board wants to make is the use-mention distinction—in other words, if they want to say that it’s okay to mention slurs as long as you don’t use them—then the code of conduct should say that, instead of the unclear language about training.
  • I feel that the default should be to not mention epithets aloud, rather than the default being that anything is okay as long as it’s mentioned rather than used. To put this point another way: When it comes to epithets, I feel that speakers at ACES should think “Can I come up with a way to make my point without saying this word?” rather than “It’s fine to say this word as long as I don’t aim it at anyone in particular.”
  • In the Board’s statement, they wrote: “We want speakers and attendees to be able to unravel some of the thornier issues in our language.” That seems to me like a reasonable goal in general, but I’m not sure how it applies to the situation at hand. Question for Board members: Do you feel that the presenter in this particular case needed to say the N-word in order to unravel thorny issues in our language? I feel that if that was her intent (which I doubt), then she failed. I don’t feel that her mention of that term did any useful unraveling of any thorny issue.
  • The Board added: “we also ask them to use good judgment, common sense, and respect while [unraveling thorny issues].” I’m not seeing anything in the discriminatory-language clause of the code of conduct that asks speakers to use good judgment, common sense, or respect, and the Board said that that clause is the only relevant one to this case. So, Board members: If you want speakers to approach such words with “discretion and sensitivity,” then I urge you to explicitly say so in your code of conduct, rather than relying on telling speakers about it outside of the code of conduct.
  • Fwiw, I feel that the presenter in this case didn’t use good judgment, common sense, or respect—neither in what she did, nor in her response to being called out about it. The Board’s statement seems to me to be looking entirely at whether her actions violated the code of conduct, without considering whether they went against the other values that the Board is saying should inform a speaker’s decisions.

Okay, enough of my responses to what the Board did say. What, you might ask, did I want the Board to say?

First off, I didn’t really expect the Board to respond to the incident at all. I don’t think anyone filed an official code-of-conduct complaint, though I could be wrong about that. I know that I didn’t post my public post with the intention of prompting an investigation. So I was pleased but surprised when Board members stepped into Kat J’s Twitter thread and said that they were aware of the situation and were looking into it.

But given that they did look into it, I hoped for a better response than the one we received. For example:

  • I wanted to see a statement that they were concerned or unhappy or otherwise not OK with conference attendees being hurt. Nothing in their statement seems to me to express sympathy or dismay. There’s no apology. There’s no acknowledgment that an overwhelmingly white conference might occasionally get some things wrong when it comes to race. There’s no acknowledgment that people coming to a presentation titled “Choosing the Right Words” might expect the presenter to be careful to choose the right words.

    Tone is hard to interpret, but fwiw, my interpretation of the tone of the Board’s statement is that they recognize that some people were shocked, but they want to gently inform us shocked people that what the presenter did was okay. I’m not getting any sense that they have sympathy for the people who were upset. It reads to me more like an attempt to explain why we were wrong to be upset.

  • More specifically on the race issue: I would have liked to see them acknowledge that only about 10% of the attendees at the conference were people of color, and that the conference should be doing more to be inclusive and welcoming to people of color, and that this kind of behavior is the opposite of inclusive and welcoming.

I also feel like the presentation of the Board’s statement could have been better. In particular:

  • I would hope that the Board of a professional organization would respond to something like this in a more public and formal way than in a Twitter thread started by one particular member. I consider Twitter to be a legitimate place to ask questions and learn about usage and concerns; but I would expect the ACES Board to have a more official venue in which to make official statements.
  • I was taken aback by the Board’s use of a screen-snap image of text for their statement, especially when the panel they’re talking about was about disability. Screen snaps of text are a terrible way to communicate—they can’t be read by screen readers, they can’t be searched, they can’t be easily excerpted, etc.

    I also think it’s bizarre that the Board included alt text for the image that said “For the full text of this statement, please send an email to our ACES Diversity and Inclusion Task Force at ACESDiversity@aceseditors.org.” That’s a completely inadequate approach to accessibility. Never make people contact you in order to get an accessible version of your statement.


And what do I want from the Board now?

Addressing my points above would be a start, along with addressing the concerns raised by others in response to the Board’s statement.

But what I would most like is for the Board to change the code of conduct, so that in the future, people of color (and other marginalized people) can feel more confident that the ACES conference will be relatively safe for them to attend.

One small step in that direction would be to clarify the language around this “training purposes” thing, as I discussed above.

A better and larger step would be for the code of conduct to explicitly say that mentioning pejoratives aloud should be a rare thing, done only when absolutely necessary, and that the audience should be warned about such mentions ahead of time. And that presenters who plan to mention such terms should think about potential harm to their audiences ahead of time, with the understanding that even mentioning a pejorative can cause harm, and that the marginalized people who we want to welcome as part of the community are more likely to be hurt by such mentions.

In addition to seeing the Board revise the code of conduct, I’d like to see the Board work harder on making the conference welcoming and inclusive. I feel like the diversity and inclusion efforts that ACES is working on are unlikely to help much if editors of color expect that they’re going to be subjected to unpleasant behavior at the conference. For example, I feel like a lot of editors of color are unlikely to feel terribly welcome if they expect that they’re going to have to sit still and listen to white people casually tossing off hugely damaging racial slurs in the middle of unrelated presentations.

So, how about it, Board? Would you be willing to try to improve your response, and to try to improve the code of conduct?

4 Responses to “The N-word incident at ACES 2019, part 2”

  1. Samantha Enslen

    Jed,
    As an ACES board member and conference attendee, I want to thank you, thank Kat, and thank everyone who has brought this to the board’s attention. We were all caught up in other activities at the time, so none of us witnessed this first-hand. I’m thankful that we found out about it — and found out about it as quickly as we did.

    You have so many good points here. I’ll share just a couple thoughts in response.

    You’re right that there is a push–pull in the code of ethics between a commitment to creating a welcoming and inclusive environment, and allowing for open discussion of language usage and change, particularly related to evolving language related to gender, race, disability, and class. How the code is worded, what it includes, what it prioritizes … please know that these are all priority #1 for the board to discuss now and in the months ahead. This conversation – which is difficult but really important! — will affect how we handle all of our training platforms, our speaker management, and our code moving forward. Our initial statement, which I drafted, was to acknowledge the situation. Now the real work begins.

    Jed, please reach out to me directly at sam@aceseditors.org anytime you want to discuss this further. Please let any friend or colleague know that as well. I know that Maisha Maurant, who chairs our Diversity and Inclusion Task Force, also wants to speak with you and will be in touch today or tomorrow. (I believe you have already contacted her at ACESDiversity@aceseditors.org, and can reach her there anytime.) Thanks again for everything, Jed!!! Sam

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  2. KTO

    Sam —

    The board’s response continues to make me … I was going to say “disappointed” but at this point I should admit publicly that I have been feeling angry. Possibly mostly at myself, for having had so much faith there that I could feel betrayed by this rather than merely feeling expected dissatisfaction.

    As far as I can tell, the board has offered carte blanche for now to a future panel where someone might do what I have experienced elsewhere, that extended litany of threatening slurs against Asians, in the name of “difficult but important”.

    It makes targeted people feel far differently than non-targeted people. I cannot imagine that the board would have been so diffident if, for instance, a man of color had used “the monosyllables” (not the one that begins with f-, the one that begins with c- and divides colloquial UK Englishes from American Englishes) as some example. (I cannot imagine a man of color using that word as lightly as this white woman used n-, in a professional context.)

    The ongoing prioritization AND UTTER DISREGARD (in the form of total lack of acknowledgment) of harm regarding the use of n- appalls me. Perhaps reading this will help: https://afro.com/nier-is-not-my-name/

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  3. Lenora Rose

    I think the disregardgoesbeyond the n word, although there’s no denying it’s the worst offense. The entire presentation and its use of the r word without preamble or warning or consideration for its harm to listeners who may well be people with disibilities, whilst explaining how it is ablist and damaging, smacked of an assimption that the persons these words , n and r alike, are used against, will not ne present in the audience, or if present, will not be harmed.

    The assumption when considering using a slur in a presentation, no matter how academic, should always be that the presentation will be done to an audience whose members belong to the group the slur is used against, not to a disinterested third party.

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  4. Samantha Enslen

    Kat,
    Even though I write for a living, I’ve clearly done a bad job of expressing how the ACES board feels about this issue. I’m so sorry about that, and I’m so sorry that I’ve made people more mad than they were before! The lack of emotion I’ve shown in our statements is probably because I’m a tech writer, more used to writing about things like air conditioning systems and cement, rather than issues of the heart and soul.
    The ACES Board is putting out a further statement about this whole situation later today or Monday. It’s being drafted by Henry Fuhrmann, who’s on our Diversity & Inclusion Task Force, and it will be sent to everyone who attended the conference and our entire 3,000+ membership. I think it explains better than I’ve been able to how distressed every single member of the board has been about what happened at the conference. It also explains what we plan to do moving forward to make sure this kind of situation doesn’t happen again.
    What Jed said above probably does the best job of all in reflecting the board’s feelings: “… the bar for when it’s okay for someone to mention a given word (when the speaker isn’t part of the group who the word is generally applied to) should be higher the more harmful a given word is. In the US, the N-word is widely recognized as being one of the most harmful racial slurs in English. The bar for a non-black presenter mentioning that word in full should be extraordinarily high.”
    If I haven’t made it clear that we feel that way, please blame me and my shortcoming as a writer – rather than an uncaring board. Please write me anytime you want at sam@aceseditors.org. Thanks again, Kat.

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