By Debra Cassens Weiss
April 27, 2021
Human Rights Watch fired its general counsel earlier this month after she used the N-word in an April 1 Zoom lecture on hate speech as an adjunct professor at Columbia University.
Dinah PoKempner, who is white, used the N-word 11 times as she related an anecdote “while laughing and switching between voices,” the Columbia Spectator reported.
PoKempner told the Columbia Spectator in a statement that the anecdote was intended to help her students conceptualize the prosecution of a European journalist for an interview with racists.
“To help them understand how the issue might look in a U.S. context, I related something I once observed, where a lawyer for the Southern Poverty Law Center, deposing a member of the Ku Klux Klan in a civil rights case, tried to get the witness to open up by leaning into a down-home accent and using the N-word repeatedly in questioning,” PoKempner said in the statement. “Unfortunately, the voices of the lawyer and his deponent were graven in my memory, and I did not edit as I spoke, using the original racist term. Students were understandably shocked, and they explained eloquently and patiently why they objected to use of the word.”
PoKempner was teaching the class as an adjunct professor at Columbia’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights.
Many students were shocked by PoKempner’s use of the N-word, according to the Columbia Spectator. After PoKempner continued her lecture for 20 minutes, students asked her to address her use of the word. After some discussion about how many students had been subjected to a slur, the class went on break.
PoKempner failed to mute herself, and she could be heard using the N-word again as she discussed what had happened with someone in the background.
According to a student who spoke with the Columbia Spectator, the other person told PoKempner: “This can get really big,” and they laughed about it.
Human Rights Watch gave a statement explaining the firing to Law.com. Human Rights Watch terminated PoKempner on April 11, according to Law.com.
“The repeated quoting of offensive language as well as Dinah PoKempner’s handling of this incident and her actions after, were serious violations of Human Rights Watch’s values, and demonstrated conduct and judgment incompatible with that expected from our general counsel,” the statement said.
Columbia University was reviewing student complaints about the incident. A school official was to oversee grading of final coursework and final grades and was available for discussions after the next class. The semester ended the week of April 12. Adjunct professors don’t have continued employment after the semester ends, a university spokesperson told Law.com.
PoKempner gave Law.com this statement through her attorney, Marjorie Berman of Krantz & Berman in New York.
“Ms. PoKempner has dedicated her entire career to the protection of human rights. She used the N-word while teaching a class, solely for pedagogical purposes. She was providing a verbatim retelling of an incident involving the deposition of a KKK witness—by the Southern Poverty Law Center—that she had witnessed as a young legal intern. In that story, a lawyer used the word in questioning a KKK witness, to provoke a like response from the witness and get it on the record, which was important to winning the case.
“Her pedagogical purpose was to inspire a discussion of whether it is ever appropriate to use such language for the purpose of eliciting hate speech, even for the goal of exposing and combating racism. Following the telling, she told the students that when she heard this over 30 years ago that it shocked her. Unfortunately, she did not consider the shock her students would feel and how this stifled the very discussion she sought to generate. She deeply regrets the impact of her words on students and apologized to them repeatedly in class for her insensitivity, and continues to regret her language.”