Sex at Dawn

Exploring the evolutionary origins of modern sexuality

N-Words with Attitude

Can words be racist—or just people and intentions?

I used to know a guy who often called me his "homeboy." Sometimes he called me his "nigga," despite the fact that we're both white.

But here's the thing: he's not a racist, and neither am I. At least, I don't think so.

"Robert" came from a predominantly black part of Philadelphia and went to Temple University, which was known as "Diversity University" at the time. Most of his friends growing up and at Temple had been black, so the language he was using came as naturally to him as his Philly accent.

Normally, when in public, he'd "talk white," to avoid potentially disastrous misunderstandings, but he'd sometimes slip, like the time we were at a Barcelona Dragons football game. In the midst of a kickoff being returned for a touchdown, he jumped up and yelled, "Yo! Give a nigga some room!" This amused and/or horrified everyone sitting around us—largely depending on whether they knew him or not.

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I haven't seen Robert in a long time, and have no idea whether he still talks this way, but I was reminded of him by recent articles like this one, asking who can legitimately use racially-charged words in American society, and who can't—or this one exploring whether some words are off-limits because of their sexist connotations.

I've also found myself in conversations I was recording for my podcast, Tangentially Speaking, where things got complicated around these questions. Renegade author/historian, Thaddeus Russell made a point of using the word, "nigger" repeatedly because, as he put it, "The word was everywhere in American history...if we're talking about American history and use 'the n-word,' it's like talking about the Constitution and using 'the c-word.'" He was careful to point out that this usage is nothing like using the word as an insult, which he wouldn't do.

In another interview, I suggested to Jason Goldman, who is—among other things—an expert in chickens' abilities to distinguish human facial characteristics, that the chickens might find this more difficult with a more racially homogeneous group of experimenters, like Chinese, for example. This led to a discussion of whether or not this was a racist conjecture on my part.

I know this is thin ice for me to wander out on, since I'm white. Or am I? One of the points Russell made in our interview was that 200 years ago, upper-class Americans and Brits placed the Irish beneath Africans on the chart of human racial development. So maybe I'm not white, after all; I'm Irish.

(For a fantastic discussion of these questions give this article by Malcolm Gladwell a look.)

I've spent a lot of time hanging around with comedians in the past year or so. (You can hear my recent—decidedly NSFW—interview at the Comedy Cellar here—#074.) One of the things I love about comics is that nothing is off-limits to talk about. To them, the same thing that makes something potentially offensive makes it interesting, and holds the potential for meaningful comedy.

I'm not arguing that we should be cavalier about our use of potentially offensive language, but I'm wondering if banning words really addresses the problem, which isn't ultimately about the words themselves, but the things they signify. Isn't banning potentially racist language as a way to address racism as non-sensical as banning sex-ed in hopes of ending teen pregnancy? Doesn't our refusal to talk about things only perpetuate them? In the end, I'm not convinced words should ever be offensive. People and intentions can be. But words themselves are innocent.

Words don't offend people; people do.

 

Christopher Ryan, Ph.D., is co-author of Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality (HarperCollins 2010).

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