Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Racism III

I read a few weeks ago about a company where there was a kerfuffle because someone had used the n-word, not calling anyone that, but in the meta-language of speaking about the word, and some folks had been offended. "It's only one word that offensive that we're asking you not to use.  It's an extremely small ask," one said. I agree.  I don't use the word myself, as there are easy ways to avoid it. The phrase "the n-word," like "the f-word" or "the c-word," is stilted and a bit childish sounding, but still, that's a minor sacrifice in order to be polite and kind.  The words themselves are more unattractive to most ears now.  

When writing notes about psychiatric patients, we would sometimes have to use exact quotes, and they had used vile or insulting words.  Some of us would write the word out, as it was an exact quote, others would use circumlocutions that would indicate what the word was without having to actually put it on the page.  When we would have to testify in court and use exact quotes that caused anxiety for some, but judges were comfortable with the evasions, so long as it was clear what had been said. However, sometimes an attorney would advocate that the actual word be pronounced out for the record. "I want the full effect of the comment. The patient knew what he was doing and I want the judge to hear it the way it was said.  I don't anyone hiding behind such things as 'He was using inappropriate language' when it was worse than that."

By the same reasoning, it should be likewise forbidden to call someone a racist according to some new definition they do not accept.  The emotional effect of the description under the old definition is hurtful to many ears, so simple politeness should dictate that we don't call people that name. It's an extremely small ask.

If the answer comes that the word racist should be allowed whether people like it our not, because it is accurate by the new definition, or important to get the point across, then the "extremely small ask" of the n-word must logically come back into play.  If it's not an extremely small ask to avoid manipulative uses of "racist," but an impossibly large one, then all our other pieces must slide about the board as well, if we are to be consistent and ...equitable. We have long-standing conventions of communication about quoting someone directly, or reading a document from another era, or in discussing a word qua word, explaining it's origin or use or effect on hearers. To give those up is not always an extremely small ask.  Those range from moderate to large asks. To disallow Huckleberry Finn in the schools is a large ask - not impossibly large, but it ain't nothin'. To be unable to quote a court decision from a century ago that was itself quoting another document of the time as a bad example is a moderately large ask.  In the very place we are seeking clarity, we have to dance around. Or take the example of John Schnatter, founder of Papa John's, quoted as saying "...what bothers me is Colonel Sanders called blacks n******. I’m like, I’ve never used that word. And they get away with it,” Schnatter said. “Yet we use the word ‘debacle’ and we get framed in the same genre. It’s crazy. The whole thing’s crazy.” I would have still avoided the full pronunciation myself. But it's hard to call his statement racist. They didn't like other political statements of his and were waiting to pounce. By the way, if there is more to the story and he said things that were racist, let me know and I'll find another example, because it's easy.  I chose this one because it was recent and clear.

It is unfair to intentionally use a word to hurt and and expect to be exempt from consequences while insisting that others take full consequences for unintentional harm.


Sam L. said...

And let us never, Never, NEVER refer to the state of Niger...

RichardJohnson said...

Back in the day, there was a discussion in my AP Humanities-History class that touched on the N-word. A childhood friend of the Afro-American persuasion, with whom I still keep in touch, told the class that her Swedish blonde friend "can call me N-word (she used no euphemism) anytime of the day." BTW, I never used that word with her.

Times change. No class today could have such a discussion without a lot of subsequent fireworks.

It works both ways. When I was working in Trinidad, an elderly black woman called me a "white mother-f**-c**" for wearing shorts- as many males did in that climate. She was under the impression that Americans wore shorts only for visits to Trinidad. As Texas summers are hotter than Trinidad, that's not the case. ( I have also worn shorts while playing soccer in New England when the temperature was in the 30s.)

The underlying reason for current use of "racist" is to place someone beyond the pale, to otherize, to exclude. It's rather ironic that the side that considers it SO important to be "inclusive" is also more than willing to use the "racist" label to exclude someone.

From my school teaching days, I recall some black students being liberal, shall we say, in using that word. Speaking of dialect variations, a student once referred to my manner of dressing as "ghetto." It turned out he meant it as a compliment. I was, in his opinion, a sharp dresser, and "ghetto" was his way of expressing that.