University of London Professor Loses Racial Discrimination Claim Over a Recommendation of a Local Sushi Restaurant – JONATHAN TURLEY
Professor Nana Sato-Rossberg at the University of London has lost a novel claim of racial discrimination against her superior, Provost Claire Ozanne. The offense? Ozanne simply said that Sato-Rossberg, who is Japanese, might enjoy a local sushi restaurant.

 

Sato-Rossberg brought an internal claim alleging race discrimination, race harassment, victimization and retaliation for whistleblowing. The university dismissed the claim and she then filed a formal complaint of employment discrimination.

Employment Judge Jillian Brown ruled that it is not discriminatory to suggest a sushi restaurant in the area. Brown noted that Ozanne “was making small talk and trying to establish a point of shared interest. Ms Ozanne said nothing detrimental about Japan.”

Judge Brown added:

“The tribunal decided that [Prof] Ozanne mentioning a sushi restaurant and her family’s love of sushi was not a detriment because a reasonable person would not consider themselves at a disadvantage when a manager, trying to be friendly and find common ground, was enthusiastic about food from the person’s country of origin.

A reasonable person would not take offence at such complimentary and friendly words.
In this case, [Prof] Ozanne’s words were not even ‘unfortunate’. They were not reasonably seen as hurtful or misjudged.

On the contrary, [Prof Sato-Rossberg’s] objection reflected [her] own hypersensitivity and predisposition to find fault with Ms Ozanne.”

This is not the first time that sushi has triggered a controversy in higher education. We previously discussed how Oberlin students protested the offering of sushi in the school dining hall as “cultural appropriation.”

Indeed, Japanese cuisine has been at the heart of other academic controversies. Previously, a Yale dean was canned for writing a negative review of a Japanese steakhouse. June Chu, dean of the school’s Pierson College, was called classist for such comments as “This establishment is definitely not authentic by any stretch of any imagination and perfect for those low class folks who believe this is a real night out.”

Chu issued a public apology that said “There are no two ways about it. Not only were they insensitive in matters related to class and race; they demean the values to which I hold myself and which I offer as a member of this community.”

Many academics privately complain about a culture of hair-triggered hypersensitivity with colleagues and students. Often there is little consideration of possible innocent, non-discriminatory intentions behind statements.

The site College Fix analogized the London case to an earlier controversy involving Rutgers University Professor Kyra Sutton who wrote an article on microaggressions that she has experienced in just going to conferences. In one such example, she was in an elevator and realized that she did not have her key. A white male pressed the button and suggested that she might want to get a new key. She wrote “Just then, I found my room key and decisively pressed the button. When the elevator stopped at the other guest’s floor, I stared at him and waited for an apology. He left without a word.”

I have been critical of microaggression policies as ill-defined and subjective. That is not to say that faculty and students cannot be thoughtless or ignorant of how their words may be taken by others. It is important for us to consider how others may take a different meaning from our words. Most of us do not want to make others feel uncomfortable and try to avoid such moments.

Yet, there can also be a hypersensitivity and politicalization in some objections. University rules increasingly premised violations on how words are taken as opposed to how they are intended. Rather than addressing such concerns informally, they are often moved into a process for formal investigations and potential sanctions. There is also a culture in higher education that fuels this sense of being triggering and victimized.

I have always been proud of my alma mater, The University of Chicago, for its commitment to free speech. However, my proudest moment came when President Robert Zimmer sent a famous letter to the class of 2020. The letter warned students that they will not be shielded from views that upset them or given “safe spaces” on campus.

What is most striking about the University of London case is the insistence of Professor Sato-Rossberg in litigating this passing comment in a formal complaint of racial discrimination. It is a manifestation of the same hair-triggered hypersensitivity that some of us have been writing about for years in higher education.

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