As a social scientist, one thing that concerns me is the idea of racism, and whether or not the problem can be solved. Some days I feel the only solution will come when races cease to exist and we are all one people, but other days I’m more optimistic that hope is on the horizon.
I wrote the following letter to a columnist concerning racial slurs on July 21, 2006. He was kind enough to respond on July 26, 2006. I am presenting them here for posterity and your consideration (with some modifications in brackets for clarification).
Letter to Sean Gonsalves
I found your article about racism and distinctions between “nigger” and “nigga” while searching for “porch monkey”. [The article is “Who Are the Bush People?” and appeared April 11, 2000 in the Cape Cod Times.] Allow me to explain.
I went to see the film Clerks II today, and there is a lengthy discussion in the film about “taking back” offensive epithets. One character throughout the course of the film tries to take the bite out of “porch monkey” by taking it to mean anyone who is lazy, regardless of race. (There is nothing intrinsic to the term that implies a racial value, I would agree.) The subject of your article made a similar case.
Your article was written in 2000. I am curious, six years later, has your opinion on racial slurs changed at all, and how do you feel about “taking back” various words?
I am against racism in all its forms, but I do think there is some truth to the idea that using the words makes them less offensive. Certainly we would agree that other non-racial curse words are less offensive today than they were even ten years ago because of their common nature. By trying to keep race terms in a little box, we only preserve their rarity and
Also, I do not know if I agree that racial slurs are a power issue [such as a weapon whites use against blacks]. I would more likely consider them a defense mechanism [something weak white people use to try to fend off what they, probably erroroneously, see as a threat].
Letter From Gonsalves to Gavin Schmitt
Good question. I guess, I’m somewhat ambivalent. Maybe that’s not the word I’m looking for. The way I feel is: people should strive to remove dehumanizing words from their vocabulary. That’s the ideal. But in the real world, where ideal speech and conversation is not always the case, I’m saying: give black folks a break. I mean, granted, it’s not a good word to use. It’s downright offensive to some but I really think ethnic groups have paid for, and own, the derogatory words other groups use to define them. So while the word should not be used gratuitously, the moral outrage at that one particular epithet and the whining about double-standards is just plain ridiculous, in my mind. I actually think it’s an offshoot of white skin privilege — this idea that somehow whites are being treated unfairly or oppressed because they can’t use the n-word with impunity. Black folks are dealing with a host of life-opportunity problems and the only discussion some folks want to have about race is whether or not it’s fair if the n-word
can be used by whites or whether anyone should be able to utter the word?