At the “When Hate Comes to Campus” event Thursday night, Caitlin Sewell, the University of North Texas System assistant general counsel, said the n-word, according to multiple sources and a recording given to the North Texas Daily.
“If I said something offensive ... you know, you can say a lot of offensive things in here because it’s impossible to talk about the First Amendment without saying horrible things,” Sewell said. “Um, you know, ‘You’re just a dumb n----r and I hate you.’ That alone, that’s protected speech.”
However, UNT Student Government Association Sen. Daniel Ojo said afterwards that Sewell continued with her example and used the “f-word” in an attempt to censor herself, but didn’t seem to worry about using the "n-word."
“So you didn’t censor the n-word, but you definitely censored f--k,” Ojo said. “Like, what’s more damaging to people? There is no word that I can say to describe a white person that is completely damaging to their character ... that has like big historical context to it that can damage someone, but there are a plethora of words that can describe and damage minor marginalized students.”
Sewell has worked at UNT since May of 2017, according to the UNT Staff Directory.
Dean of Students Maureen "Moe" McGuinness appeared to defend and comfort her immediately after she made the remark, said marketing senior Katlyn Benedict, who was at the event and provided the Daily with the recording.
“She said that she knew Caitlin was apologetic and didn’t mean it, but it was her backing her up,” Benedict said about the dean of students. “She stood right beside her and looked to comfort her afterwards.”
During a question-and-answer period near the end of the event, McGuinness walked back her defense of Sewell.
“I’m sorry, and you need to hear me say that, and every student in this office needs to hear me say that I should not be speaking for Caitlin,” McGuinness said. “I should not be speaking for you. I hope you know I’m every student’s biggest supporter. And I will tell you, you’re the reason I do my job. If you read an email from me, students are not an interruption to our work, they are the purpose of it. And we need to all remember that, and I value each of you individually, as well as collectively, and I am sorry.”
At the end of the panel discussion, SGA President Yolian Ogbu addressed the crowd by letting them know that there were cards available to fill out for students to address their concerns. However, she finished with a comment for Sewell.
“I hope you can acknowledge that you’re a racist,” Ogbu said. “And you can hopefully unpack that, for me, so thank you.”
Standing at the front of the Lyceum, Sewell was close to tears as the event came to a close. She declined a request for comment.
Later that night, Ogbu released a statement on Twitter as well.
“Caitlin Sewell is the white lady who said ‘dumb n----r’ at ‘When Hate Comes to Campus’ panel,” she wrote. “She is the assistant general counsel for the UNT System and I call for her resignation immediately. If UNT wants to say they’re anti-racist, show us.”
Soon after the event, UNT President Neal Smatresk also released a statement on Twitter in a response to Sewell’s use of the racial slur.
“During the ‘When Hate Comes to Campus’ panel discussion this evening, a member of the UNT System legal staff used a racial epithet that was not reflective of the values of our university community,” the statement read. “While the individual was trying to make a point about First Amendment speech, this language is never condoned in our community which prides itself on our diversity and caring nature.”
The SGA and UNT’s Black Student Union said on Twitter that they will, along with the UNT chapter of the NAACP, release a detailed statement and a list of demanded actions today.
“We are truly disappointed in the speech portrayed tonight, but things need to be done and change is coming!” the BSU’s tweet said.
The dean of students was also to meet today to discuss what UNT should do about this, McGuinness said.
“I think this kind of exemplifies how UNT really is,” Ojo said. “I think Caitlin Sewell is a perfect example of what UNT [administration] is actually like. We have all these offices of diversity and inclusion and equity diversity and things like that, but then when it comes down to it, we are the most racist. We have a lot of marginalization of students of color, or of any marginalized group, and I think this really showed what UNT’s about.”
Kelly Neidert, the chairwoman of UNT’s chapter of Young Conservatives of Texas, said she was shocked at Sewell’s use of the racial slur and said it came from a place of ignorance.
“Everybody has some form of prejudice, whether they know it or not,” Neirdrt said. “That’s just been embedded into her thinking; I think it was ignorance, not blatant racism.”
Neirdert said that while Sewell should not be fired, UNT should condemn the use of that word.
“Given the context, I don’t think they can fire her over that,” Neirdert said. “It was stupid and not tasteful to say as an example; I think she was using an extreme example. It was an educational setting.”
Benedict said the audience reacted with gasps and “what the f--k” after Sewell said the racial slur.
“After she was confronted, a lot of people around the audience were heated and I would say hurt or disrespected,” Benedict said. “And I don’t think a lot of people were happy she was being defended either.”
As to her own reaction, Benedict said she was shocked.
“[I] couldn’t believe that she had said that word,” Benedict said. “And out of all examples for free speech and things to say, I just don’t get why she had to say that word. It was disrespectful. And honestly she didn’t react when she first said it. It came out so naturally almost like she had planned it. She didn’t even realize it was offensive until someone brought it up at the end of her talking. She said she was apologetic and never said in a 'public setting' before, but it was just hard to believe she hadn’t said anything like that before.”
Benedict said she does think Sewell should be fired.
“I understand that this was a free speech event, and she was giving examples, but her example was upsetting and I do believe she should be fired for that, yes,” Benedict said. “If this were an office and she said that, she would have been fired. I also think the dean of students also shouldn’t have stood up for her and should have realized what Caitlin said affected the students listening. Many of the other panelists were shook by it and said how it was wrong, but the dean never really said anything about that.”
McGuinness said her heart hurts.
“My heart hurts for students, for our community,” McGuinness said. “We need to continue to have civil conversations and listen to our student body and to our community and those that feel marginalized, those that don’t feel heard. I think we have to continue the conversation, and it’s not something you have once a month, it’s something you have often.”