Saturday, February 6, 2010


Talk about race occurs in a rhetorical context, something neither elusive nor vague. It consists of the speaker’s or writer’s character, motives, and purposes, the content and circumstances of the message, and the audience’s nature and interests. But it is complicated; change one of these factors, and others change.

Everyone competent in any language intuitively knows these basics and applies them in every verbal exchange. Language is multi-faceted in its functions, malleable in its uses, and liable to misuses and abuses. In areas of personal sensitivity or political importance, people often use language to serve purposes other than truth or good. A dishonest or hypocritical charge of racism serves character assassination; ask Harry Reid.

Discussions of touchy subjects can be difficult because their terms of discourse often have such strong emotive force that they seem to have inherent powers. A city woman on a first visit to a farm was taken to a sty and shown a prize porker; “really is a pig,” she said in disgust. Jews came to regard “Yahweh,” their early name for God, as too holy to utter. Many have believed that priests’, sages’, healers’, witchdoctors’, and magicians’ incantations make things happen.

People subscribing to this force of words to work good or evil often have arbitrary rules about whether anyone may use certain words and, if so, who. Unless they want to rule them out of all use by anyone, they merely severely circumscribe the permissible contexts for their use. Some claim that no one, not even blacks, should ever, under any circumstances, use the “n-word." Never mind that its proscription requires knowledge and use of the word; that lexicographers, linguists, anthropologists, sociologists could not use it even for academic purposes; or that it” occurs in fiction and film of high as well as low quality.

We generally allow the use of the “n-word” in such contexts because we understand them. Some take exception to the use of the word in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn on the grounds that children are impressionable and on the pretense that they do not learn to be or not be racist long before they get to middle school. Most take no exception to the use of the “n-word” or “Negro” in the movie Pulp Fiction or the “n-word” or “colored” in the movie Bulworth. And almost everyone knows that blacks use the “n-word” in a wide variety of meanings among themselves.

Maybe the “no ones” who should never use the “n-word” are whites only. The fact is that some whites use it among themselves, out of professional necessity or personal prejudice. The main question is whether it can be acceptable in mixed racial company. The answer is: it depends on the rhetorical context. I have been in conversations among blacks and whites who knew and trusted each other; if the use of the “n-word” seemed necessary, those of both races used it, without offense to, or inference by, anyone. Enough said, except that there is nothing inherently racist about the “n-word.”

I have stressed the “n-word” because it is the extreme case. What about other words associated with blacks? Aside from slurs, other words once acceptable have gone out of fashion or become offensive. “Colored,” a word once commonplace in southern states, in signs near water fountains, toilets, and doors, appears in the name of the NAACP, but is otherwise unacceptable. “Negro,” a word still used by many older blacks today and in song and speech by, say, Leadbelly and Martin Luther King, Jr., appears in the name of the UNCF. In my youth, whites used it as the proper word for blacks. Today, especially among younger people, the word is objectionable. But its use by those who grew up with it, white and black, does not make them racist, just slow or reluctant to change their verbal habits.

Then there are slips of the tongue. Days ago, my wife suggested a hike to Dripping Springs. After some discussion, I said that, despite some lingering weakness from my hip replacement, I thought that I could make it to Roaring Springs. When she corrected me, I realized that I had reached back half a century to my hikes in the Grand Canyon.

So, when, in casual, private conversation, Harry Reid used the out-of-fashion term “Negro,” he likely reached back. In the context of his life, including his long legislative record, his use of the term signifies absolutely nothing racist. Blacks rallying in support know so, and Obama should have said that Reid had said nothing requiring an apology.

Those who appeal to political correctness are obtuse moralists; those who oppose it but resorted to it to attack Reid are obscene partisans. The pious and the hypocritical alike encumber discussions of race promoting respect among people of different races by introducing talk about talk about race, and thereby disrupt talk about the issue.

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