Slurs: Who Can Say Them, When, and Why

Why President Obama can say “nigger” and I can’t (except when I can)


Maybe the best treatment of racial slurs ever to appear in a movie was this scene from the 2006 film Clerks 2. Randall, a fast-food worker, can’t understand why porch monkey is racist: When his non-racist grandmother used to say it, he claims, she just meant “a lazy person” not “a lazy black person”. After a black customer (played by Wanda Sykes) freaks, Randall’s friend Dante finally convinces him that porch monkey really is a racial slur (and maybe Randall’s grandmother had more racial prejudice than he remembered). But then Randall decides he’s going to “take it back”; he’s going to keep saying porch monkey, but reclaim it by using it in a non-racist way. A frustrated Dante explains to Randall that he can’t reclaim porch monkey, “because you’re not black!”

“Well listen to you,” Randall responds. “Telling me I can’t do something because of the color of my skin? You’re the racist.”

Randall’s obtuseness and Dante’s exasperation are funny, but Randall’s view is not that different from a lot of white men: Why are the rules different for us? Black rappers say nigger all the time, but when we do it’s racist. Meredith Brooks can name a song “Bitch” and Christina Aguilera can up the ante to “Super Bitch“. But when a guy says “bitch”, it’s sexist. A female writer like Lisa Miller can title her New York Magazine article “Hillary Clinton Finally Has Permission to be a Bitch” and it’s supposed to be, like, liberating or something. But when Glenn Beck referred to Clinton — the same woman! — as a “stereotypical bitch“, that was objectionable.

What’s up with that? When blacks and women can say and do things that white men can’t, isn’t that a double standard? And as Randall says, aren’t the liberals who promote that double standard the real racists and sexists?

In a word, no. But in real life — particularly when an example springs up unexpectedly, like Randall’s porch monkey — explaining why can be frustrating. A whole branch of the media is devoted to promoting what I have elsewhere called privileged distress, the feeling among white men — and Christians and English-speakers and the rich and every other privileged class in America — that they are really the persecuted ones. Their supporting examples and arguments and ways of framing the situation come easily to mind, while the explanations of why that’s the wrong way to look at it require some thought.

So let’s do some of that thinking.

Banter or insult? When blacks say “Hey, nigger” or “What’s up, nigger?” to each other, that’s banter. But if a white man like me walks up to a black and says, “What’s up, nigger?”, it’s an insult — even if I’m smiling and friendly when I do it. Why? There’s actually a color-blind rule here that’s fairly simple: An insult can be friendly banter if it can be thrown right back at you.

The reason it can be banter when one black guy says nigger to another is that the other guy can respond, “Who you calling nigger, nigger?” That doesn’t work when the white guy says it.

It’s not a double standard, because the same rule applies to me in exactly the same way. At my 40th high school reunion last fall, we were constantly making fun of how old we’ve gotten. Picture me with a too-full beer stein, and a classmate saying “Hey, old man, you sure you can lift that? Don’t want to hurt yourself.” It’s banter, and everyone laughs, because we’re all the same age.

But now imagine that the handsome and athletic young guy tending bar says the same thing to me as he serves the drink: “Hey, old man. You sure you can lift that? Don’t want to hurt yourself.” Now those are fighting words. He’s thrown an insult at me that I can’t throw right back. Now I’ve got something to prove.

The same rule applies all over: Fat people can kid each other about their weight. Tyrion Lannister can tell dwarf jokes. It’s not a double standard.

There are no white male equivalents. Sometimes you’ll hear people banter, not by throwing the same insult back and forth, but by using insults that are more-or-less equivalent. Picture two white guys at a bar, taunting each other in a friendly way with dago and pollock.

Some white guys think they should be able to use nigger the same way. The other guy can throw honky or cracker back at us, so it’s all good. Here’s the problem: honky and cracker are in no way equivalent to nigger.

If you just look them up in a dictionary you might think they are equivalent: honky is a racial slur directed at whites, nigger at blacks. What’s the difference?

Usage.

Nigger has centuries of usage behind it, and the connotation of that usage is that blacks are a subhuman race. Nigger evokes a detailed stereotype — lazy, stupid, violent, lustful, dangerous — while honky just says you’re a white guy I don’t like. For centuries, niggers weren’t really people. There’s no equivalent word for whites, because whites have always been seen as people.

If that example of the importance of usage doesn’t ring true for you, look at a different example: cow and bull. If you had recently arrived from Mars, where you learned English out of a dictionary, you might think that cow and bull are equivalent insults for women and men: Each compares a human to a bovine of the same gender.

But those words have centuries of usage behind them, and so they connote very different different ideas. Calling a woman a cow implies that she’s fat, lazy, and stupid, probably good for nothing but whelping and suckling babies. Calling a man a bull, on the other hand, is a compliment. He’s powerful and headstrong. A running back can bull his way over the goal line, while someone who gets intimidated out of making a legitimate claim has been cowed.

Likewise, a Martian might think that prick and cunt are equivalent insults: They each identify a person with his or her genitalia. But a prick is a minor annoyance, while a cunt is a subhuman who is only good for sex. You might have an argument with a prick, but talking to a cunt is just stupid.

Limbaugh.

In short: No way, no how can white men banter with nigger. Neither the word itself nor any equivalent insult can be thrown back at us. Ditto for bitch or cow or cunt. A woman can shoot back with prick, asshole, bastard, or jerk, but it’s just not the same.

Taboos vs. stereotypes. White guys like Rush Limbaugh treat slurs as if they were taboos — words we’re not supposed to say just because we’re not supposed to say them, like shit or fuck. There’s no reason for it, it’s just a rule. Worse, it’s a rule that’s not applied fairly: Only white guys get called to account when they break it.

How Limbaugh pictures himself

Consequently, white guys make slurs the object of bad-boy humor. Limbaugh thinks he is being brave and daring when he calls Sandra Fluke a slut. And he thinks he’s being clever when he finds ways to come as close as possible to saying nigger without actually saying it. (It’s like those I-didn’t-really-say-a-bad-word jokes we told in grade school: “What did the fish say when he swam into a concrete wall?” “Dam!”)

That’s what white guys — and a few non-white guys who are trying too hard to fit in — mean when they brag that they’re “not PC”. It’s a James Dean pose: I’m a rebel. I can’t be bound by your arbitrary rules about what words I can or can’t say.

What’s wrong with that attitude is that society’s distaste for slurs is not a meaningless taboo. There are at least two good reasons for it:

  • In any disagreement or discussion, using a slur is cheating: You’re hitting your opponent with a club they can’t use to hit you back.
  • Every time you use a slur, you perpetuate the stereotypes it invokes. Calling a black person a nigger raises the notion — whether you’re thinking about it consciously or not — that blacks are subhumans who don’t deserve equal treatment. Calling a woman a cunt reinforces the idea that women are just good for sex, and don’t have to be treated like thinking beings.

The various disadvantaged communities are all debating whether or not it’s ever OK to use the slurs themselves. Some argue that when black rappers use nigger, they jam the stereotype rather than perpetuate it. Some women believe that saying bitch is liberating, because it shows the word doesn’t scare them. Others disagree, believing that any use of a slur promotes its stereotypes.

I think this: Those issues are for those communities to figure out. In the unlikely event that they ask my advice, I might give it. But until then, my opinion as a white guy doesn’t and shouldn’t matter.

Words as words. Now, somebody is bound to point out that in my discussion of why white guys shouldn’t use nigger, bitch, and cunt, I’ve used nigger, bitch, and cunt. Isn’t that liberal hypocrisy? Aren’t I just waving my liberal privilege in Rush’s face, saying “I can say it but you can’t!”?

I plead not guilty. There is a difference between using a word and referring to a word. I haven’t been talking about “the niggers”, I’ve been referring to the word nigger.

Why is that OK? Once again, these are not taboos. There’s no dark magic in the letters that is unleashed whenever they are put together. The power is in the use, not in the pronunciation.

That distinction is too complex for children, so we teach them not to use the words by presenting them as taboo. And this creates problems for children, as when the tattle-tale blurts out: “Teacher, Billy said shit.”

Likewise in the mass media, where children might be listening and might regard the speaker as an authoritative example — “But Mommy, the man on the radio said it.” — we insist on circumlocutions like the N-word. But when adults talk to other adults as adults, we need to be able to name the words we’re referring to. Otherwise you wind up in situations like the stoning scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

Obama on WTF. So now we come to President Obama’s interview on the podcast “WTF with Marc Maron“, where he said:

Racism, we are not cured of it. And it’s not just a matter of it not being polite to say nigger in public.

And that caused a freak-out. Fox News’ Todd Starnes was one among many:

It was disappointing to say the least to hear such a vulgarity come out of the mouth of the leader of the free world.

But there you have it folks – this is man who was supposed to usher in the post-racial America. This is the man who was supposed to unite, not divide.

What President Obama said is indefensible. It soils the dignity of the Oval Office.

That’s a reaction to breaking a taboo: It would be appropriate if Obama had said fuck or shit. We don’t want our president saying crap like that.

But look at it in light of my previous analysis: We have a black man referring to the N-word in a forum not intended for children. It’s fine.

Fox’ David Webb raises this question:

Could you imagine if a Ted Cruz or somebody on the Republican side used it, in the same context, what the reaction would be.

You mean referring to it, in a discussion of racism intended for adults? I’d be fine with it.

Glee. What I’m not fine with is what Ted Nugent did: Use Obama’s example as an argument in favor of slurs and offensive symbols in general.

What sort of politically correct zombie could actually believe that the elimination of a word or a flag would reduce the evil of racism?

What sort of goofball could possibly believe that certain words are OK for one group of people but forbidden by others?

That, by the way, is the definition of racism.

I’m sure Ted and Randall could have a long talk about that, but no, it isn’t.

There’s something gleeful in Nugent’s usage of nigger, and that right there is the final test I’d recommend to any white person who’s thinking about saying it: You might think you’re referring to the word in the analytic way I have endorsed. But while analysis may at times be satisfying or even fascinating, it is almost never gleeful.

So if the word tastes delicious in your mouth, if saying it feels like a forbidden pleasure, something else is going on. Maybe you should reconsider.

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Comments

  • Kate mcke  On June 29, 2015 at 11:08 am

    This is the most articulate and thoughtful discussion of this issue that I have ever seen. Well done!!

  • Brent Holman  On June 29, 2015 at 11:21 am

    I’ve been calling people monkeys for a long time, because some people are apparently a bit less than sentient….& retarded refers to ‘an otherwise functioning system which is temporarily rendered non-functioning, as in a spark-plug’. My brother comes to mind….but the word has lost it’s original meaning & is therefore frowned upon…

  • Corey Fisher  On June 29, 2015 at 11:30 am

    I’m really happy that this includes the use-mention distinction (the technical term for the distinction between normal use and “words and words”). People really don’t understand the first thing about how language works, and that’s a massive contributor to why things like President Obama’s mention of “nigger” has blown up so much. We really need, if we’re going to have any sort of conversation about the use of slurs, to understand that as a society.

  • douglashicton  On June 29, 2015 at 12:20 pm

    I would never under any circumstances call a black person a nigger, but I have mentioned that I’m convinced the only reason Republicans in Congress have had it in for President Obama since he waas elected, and have spent an indecent amount of time and energy trying to defeat every last one of his initiatives, is that they see him as “one o’ them thar uppity niggers” (and yes, the quotation marks are intentional). I hope THAT was the proper context, as I was trying to send up a stereotypical bigot voice. Maybe I’m out of line even then because I have blond hair, I don’t know. You tell me.

    One thing I flatly refuse to do is call it “the N-word”. I hate that euphemistic construction in the same way I hate “the F-word” or “the S-word” or “the C-word”. Look, we all know perfectly well what those words really are. It’s dishonest, childish, and namby-pamby to pretend otherwise. I also don’t like to hear taboo words bleeped on TV shows like Jerry Springer or any number of reality programs, particularly when bad behaviour and cussing are encouraged in order to boost ratings. Apparently, audiences are thrilled and titlllated knowing that people are saying “dirty” words on television, but actually hearing them is nother matter.

    Nudity is another thing people supposedly can’t handle. There’s this show on Discovery called “Naked and Afraid”, in which a man and a woman are stuck in a jungle for three weeks with no clothes on, and yet all the naughty bits are blurred out, even in the “Uncensored” version. The obvious question is, why bother having their buck-nakedness as the show’s selling point if the network is just going to put virtual swimsuits on them? Would the couple be that much less exposed and vulnerable if they were wearing actual swimsuits?

    OK, I’ve strayed a bit from the topic. What are your thoughts on the word “fag”? Can only gays use them? I’m gay and I hate it when anyone uses it, gay or straight.

    • amanuensis99  On July 1, 2015 at 3:29 am

      Of all the distinctions I have ever heard, this one rings truest for me; “Banter or insult?”
      If I hear someone call me a fag, and I know I can call them one right back– I’m okay with the word.
      The time I heard it on a Chicago street thought, the next thing I heard was a beer can striking the head of someone else who was walking along side of me, and my night ended up taking strangers to ER. That’s not banter, and I am not cool with it.
      So yeah, only gays can use them. Or straight guys who are amongst the company of their gay besties.

    • weeklysift  On July 1, 2015 at 8:14 am

      Good observation there, about whether there’s a talking-in-somebody-else’s-voice exemption. I believe there can be, but it’s very tricky to use or make rules about, because it’s easy to imagine somebody doing it in a way that implicitly endorses the slur: “That Obama guy, I know what my grandfather would have said about him: He’s just an uppity nigger.” In that case, putting the slur in Grandpa’s mouth doesn’t make it better.

  • lsnrchrd1  On June 29, 2015 at 2:42 pm

    “Fag” is absolutely a pejorative, regardless of tonal inflection or preceding adjective(s). Like “nigger”, “cunt”, etc., use of this word is a deliberate choice which states nothing about the addressee, but reveals a comprehensive view of the mindset, the attitude, of the user, in the heat of a moment if not its permanent state.

    • Brent Holman  On June 29, 2015 at 3:32 pm

      One thing to consider is in the English language, words tend to lose syllables, I think…anyway people like mono-syllabic words…as they are easy, like labels…

  • coastcontact  On June 29, 2015 at 2:44 pm

    You are trying to tell me what words are acceptable in polite society. That is a function of where you grew up and who taught you right from wrong. “Schvartze” is a derogatory word use by Jews rather then Nigger. You may not have ever heard that word but a hateful man like my father-in-law used it frequently. He was an Archie Bunker. Rush Limbaugh is trying his best to walk around a difficult issue. Yes calling Sandra Fluke a slut was his best effort to denigrate the woman.

  • Erica  On June 29, 2015 at 4:32 pm

    Great article! I have friends who really don’t understand how “cunt” and “prick” or “nigger” and “cracker” are unequal insults. Next time I’m trying to explain my position, I’ll definitely use the “old guy” scenario. I think it will be easier for them to put themselves in the old guy’s shoes, and maybe change their perspective.

  • mysanal  On June 29, 2015 at 6:52 pm

    YES! Thank you for such a beautifully written piece.

  • Crazy Cracka  On June 29, 2015 at 9:42 pm

    Here are you two arguments:

    “In any disagreement or discussion, using a slur is cheating: You’re hitting your opponent with a club they can’t use to hit you back.”

    This is irrelevant. In any civil disagreement or discussion, the second a party resorts to insults, they have shown they are not engaging in good faith and they can and should be immediately ignored. If the discussion isn’t civil, then you can always bash the other guy’s head in and I don’t think anyone will mind too much given they were the ones provoking it.

    “Every time you use a slur, you perpetuate the stereotypes it invokes. Calling a black person a nigger raises the notion — whether you’re thinking about it consciously or not — that blacks are subhumans who don’t deserve equal treatment. Calling a woman a cunt reinforces the idea that women are just good for sex, and don’t have to be treated like thinking beings.”

    The absurdity of this is painfully obvious. If a kid calls a black friend “nigger” because he heard the word and thought it sounded funny, they aren’t perpetuating shit. It’s a silly game with a meaningless word. Now that you’ve seen what lies at opposite ends of this continuum of meaning, I’m pretty sure you can fill in the blanks and see there is a myriad of contexts in which any and every word is perfectly acceptable, because their meanings are not fixed and you can indeed reclaim them. You just need to be smart and tactful about it instead of trying to bully your own meaning in, because that obviously never works for any word of any kind (photoshopping is doing well and good as a verb despite their “owners” best efforts to change that).

  • Anonymous  On June 29, 2015 at 11:26 pm

    So by this reasoning, is it inappropriate for a black person to call a white person a honkey or cracker, or for a woman to call a man a prick due to the inability to equivalently “throw it back?” Should it be viewed the same way as a white man using the other slurs, or does their privileged status make them fair game for verbal abuse?

    • David Shair  On June 30, 2015 at 2:48 am

      No, of course white males can respond during an argument. For example, if someone calls me a prick, I can say “That kind of argument just shows what an asshole you are. ” Or if you prefer “An argument ad hominem shows the bankruptcy of your ideas. “

    • weeklysift  On July 1, 2015 at 8:03 am

      I assume you’re thinking about the banter situation, and yeah, I don’t think it works. If I black guy walked up to me and said “Hey, cracker” with a smile on his face, I wouldn’t know what to do. I can’t imagine answering “What’s up, nigger?” and seeing the conversation go anywhere good.

      That said, it wouldn’t be that big an offense, because “cracker” just isn’t that biting an insult. So I’d probably just pretend he didn’t say it and respond with something like “And good morning to you too!” Maybe I’d put some over-the-top gentlemanly flourish into it “And good morning to you, my good man” just to show we were off-script.

  • Andy David  On June 30, 2015 at 9:21 am

    “So if the word tastes delicious in your mouth, if saying it feels like a forbidden pleasure, something else is going on. Maybe you should reconsider.”

    I’ve been there. For me, the “something else” was best dramatized by Stimpy and “The Red Button.” http://youtu.be/NITBfc1EOBo

  • Dan  On June 30, 2015 at 12:45 pm

    Say my mother gained some weight, and my brother and i are joking about it. Then a friend of mine hears us, and says, “Yeah, she sure got fat!” Even if I was closer to this friend than I was to my brother, we would both turn to my friend and let him know very clearly that he should keep his mouth shut about our mother.

    For what its worth, this is how I contextualize why racial slurs are fine within members a race, but not OK for someone not of that race to use.

  • Kate  On June 30, 2015 at 4:26 pm

    Great piece! Very helpful explanations.

  • Stickler  On June 30, 2015 at 10:10 pm

    “Pollock” is a type of fish. “Polack” is the racial slur. (Paragraph 12)

    • weeklysift  On July 1, 2015 at 7:52 am

      I’ve seen “polack”, but it doesn’t match the slur as I heard it pronounced (PO-lock) while I was growing up. So I looked “pollock” up in the Urban Dictionary before I used it.

      • Stickler  On July 1, 2015 at 8:30 am

        Interestingly, we also pronounced it as you did. Hm. Thanks for the clarification. (I come from a time long ago when we told “PO-lock” jokes, which became blonde jokes, which are now I guess “two dumb guys” jokes.

  • Quaker in a Basement  On June 30, 2015 at 10:42 pm

    “If black people can say that word, why can’t I?”

    Why do you want to?

    • Anonymous  On July 2, 2015 at 10:20 am

      Good question. Why are we even having the conversation in the first place…

  • Charles Herold  On July 1, 2015 at 2:12 pm

    Very good; I haven’t heard this explained in terms of banter, but it makes total sense.

    I was surprised by the differentiation between cunt and prick. I’ve always thought of them as both meaning essentially “asshole” and carrying the same weight. Anyway, I’ll keep using “asshole,” which I think is a much more appropriate way to describe awful people.

  • orionblair  On July 1, 2015 at 10:59 pm

    There’s a wonderful scene in Clint Eastwood’s “Gran Torino” where he and the barber trade ethnic slurs, as in “Picture two white guys at a bar, taunting each other in a friendly way with dago and pollock.” (BTW, pollock is a fish, don’t we mean polack?)

  • kingadrock  On July 4, 2015 at 4:49 am

    Black people do not call each other “nigger”. They call each other “nigga”. Don’t scoff at the inflection. The difference between those two pronunciations is HUGE.

    While white people shouldn’t use either, saying “nigga” will likely get angry words; “nigger” will likely get you punched in the face.

  • ThinkPurpose  On July 11, 2015 at 5:58 am

    Reblogged this on thinkpurpose and commented:
    Who can say what to who and why.
    It’s really very simple, and just takes a modicum of decency.

  • Frank Wood  On July 12, 2015 at 7:12 am

    Great article which answers fully the problem of using certain words.

    I’m a Paddy and the only non Irish people I let use the word “Paddy” are those that I know well.

    Others I’m suspicious of and when they use it more than once I’ll usually make some appropriate comment.

    However the old saying “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” does spring to mind and we react too strongly then maybe our self importance is kicking in.

    BTW “nigger” comes from the Latin word meaning “black” “Spade” is from the saying “Black as the ace of spades” and “Paddy” comes from “St Patrick” and so on.

    All these words have fairly innocuous origins – it’s the usage and context that has corrupted them and made them into nasty connotations.

  • copala  On March 1, 2016 at 8:18 pm

    Nigger is no longer a racial slur, a subculture within black America uses it as a cultural identifier for both self and friend. They even make millions using it. Given this fact, and given the lopsided Marxist bs that is critical race theory, no one need worry who gets offended by its use, no one who takes it seriously is to be taken seriously. If they want to fire you for it then sue, either you win or the gov tells you in effect that whites are second class, and we can then begin to formally fix that. If some entitled black wants to get violent over it, then ventilate his ass in self defense. Either way, if they are gonna own the word nigger then they are gonna have to hear it from you too…if that isn’t good enough then they can stop using it.

    • Brent Holman  On March 1, 2016 at 8:26 pm

      You appear to be an idiot.

    • weeklysift  On March 2, 2016 at 7:02 am

      I feel like every point you make has already been answered in the article.

  • Excellent  On May 5, 2017 at 1:04 pm

    What if, I call non-black people niggers? What then? This article is a crock of shit

  • No Name  On May 26, 2017 at 10:24 am

    We’ll likely just have to agree to disagree, but it’s precisely the definition of a double standard. Either it’s appropriate or it’s not, “banter” aside. Just because YOU are subjectively okay with something (old man reference while at the reunion) doesn’t mean that it’s actually okay to say. Someone can easily just see it as an insult at the same time.

  • Thot  On May 29, 2017 at 8:39 am

    Idubbbz handled it much better than you did because if a black person calls me a cracker and I call him a nigger I’m the bad one for fighting back.when in reality instead of fighting to see who has the worst slur it should be either there all ok or none of them are

  • alex in san jose  On June 1, 2017 at 8:12 pm

    This article is outstanding. It explains the situation simply enough that you can take this idea and explain it to a co-worker or friend or well, anyone.

    I always thought “cracker” and “honkie” were funny, I mean, what do they mean? Exactly what the article says, a white person you don’t like. Cracker? Hm, I like saltines too. Honkie? Are you supposed to honk like a goose?

    The n-word is kind of like the word “haole” where I grew up. We could use it simply to describe each other, and to joke around with each other, but it was the islands’ version of the n-word, used as an insult any white person who grew up there has heard thousands of times by the time they’re 18 and can consider leaving the place. Being a haole means you can’t get jobs, you can’t live a lot of places, it’s very hard to go to college and get funding, you can be attacked or even killed and even in Hawaii’s hot and humid climate, no one’s gonna work up a sweat looking for your body….

    I was able to get out in my early 20s. When I heard about the Great Northern Migration from the South to places like Chicago and Detroit, I felt I knew at least a tiny bit of what that was all about. I was never going to get anywhere living in Hawaii even though that’s home, where I grew up. The only sensible action is to get the hell out.

    Frankly, being white on the Mainland US is pretty nice. I can walk down the street, I don’t get hassled by the cops or given tickets for jaywalking or get a talking-to for being in the wrong place – like I dunno, on my own street? I can apply for a lot more jobs and expect to be considered, like the post office. Hell I can bet a PO Box without being given the run-around. Same goes for car registration, and a number of things. I can go to any college and go to the iibrary and not once, on the Mainland here, have I had anyone confront me and get in my face and yell at me for being white. I can go into just about any restaurant and get service (there’s a ramen place not far from me that doesn’t like white people and service will be terrible if I go in there, but the joke’s on them because their ramen is mediocre at best). All in all it’s pretty sweet.

    So I’d just like to say that “the white male is universal” is not really that hard a rule. This stuff goes in all directions depending on who’s the group in power. Go to a place where “the white male” is not in power and see how far you get.

Trackbacks

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