Professor Joe Scanlan has taught at Princeton since 2009 and directed the Visual Arts Program from 2009–2017. (via Flickr)

Notorious Princeton University professor and artist Joe Scanlan has once again been accused of racial insensitivity: On November 3, Scanlan, who is White, said the N-word during his “Words as Objects” course at the school.

The creative writing and visual arts class “explores ways that language can take on material properties and how objects can have syntax and be ‘read,'” according to a course description. Scanlan was teaching Black author Jonah Mixon-Webster’s collection of poems Stereo[TYPE] (2018), an anthology that explores Blackness, the self, and America’s racist foundations. The Daily Princetonian student newspaper, which first reported the story in both a news article and a first-person account, stated that Scanlan used the slur when asking his students a discussion question about the text, and that it was not part of a direct quote. Scanlan told the Princetonian that he was citing Mixton-Webster’s poem “Black Existentialism no. 8: Ad Infinitum; Ad Nauseam,” a lengthy poem that comprises one word — the N-word — repeated over and over.

In an email to Hyperallergic, Princeton’s director of media relations Michael Hotchkiss cited the school’s statement on freedom of expression, which “allows all faculty and students the ‘broadest possible latitude‘ to speak freely inside and outside the classroom,” and explained that speech is restricted “under narrow exceptions that do not apply to this incident.”

Scanlan apologized to his students three days later and did not attend the class scheduled for November 10. According to the Princetonian, Scanlan wrote to his students that he wanted them to focus on their art while he worked with the department “to see what arrangements we might make to help the class move forward,” and asked for their input on how to do so.

Jeffrey Whetstone, director of Princeton’s Program in Visual Arts, told Hyperallergic that Scanlan’s use of the racial slur has directly harmed students in the class. “I interviewed them, so I know,” said Whetstone. “It also harmed others more indirectly — our faculty, staff, and other students — ones not even in the course. There was collateral damage done as well.”

This is far from the first time Scanlan has drawn criticism for racially charged stunts. For a 2003 exhibition titled Pay Dirt, the artist smeared mud on his face, eliciting allegations of blackface. (The exhibition description explains that Pay Dirt was a “reconciliation between industry and the environment.”)

Then, in 2005, Scanlan hired Black woman actors to play the part of a fictional artist he invented named “Donelle Woolford,” whose work was included in the 2014 Whitney Biennial.

The Whitney Museum of American Art’s selection of the character led to an outpouring of backlash and helped to call attention to the biennial’s lack of diversity — only 9 of the 103 artists were Black, and one of them was Donelle Woolford, Scanlan’s fictional character. Artist collective Yams Collective withdrew from the event over Scanlan’s inclusion, stating that they felt “the representation of an established academic White man posing as a privileged African-American woman is problematic,” and adding that the project negated their presence at the biennial as representatives of the African diaspora.

Scanlan, who is tenured, is not facing formal disciplinary action from the university. Hotchkiss stated: “Our rules recognize that these free speech protections apply to words and ideas that people may find ‘offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed,’ but these protections are essential for Princeton’s truth-seeking mission.”

Whetstone, meanwhile, says some students are wary of returning to the class, some refuse to go back, at least one student has dropped the course, and some have told him that they are worried about grade retaliation.

“We are working to address that administratively and come up with a plan where students feel that they will be treated fairly and with respect,” said Whetstone. “But it can in no way be construed as punishment for Scanlan, since it has been decided by the higher administration that he was within his rights.”

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Elaine Velie

Elaine Velie is a writer from New Hampshire living in Brooklyn. She studied Art History and Russian at Middlebury College and is interested in art's role in history, culture, and politics.

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