Colorful Language

A slew of recent media mouth offs have demonstrated a poor sense of what constitutes racism. The Don Imus incident is only the tip of the iceberg. While the radio personality’s characterization of the Rutgers women’s basketball team as “nappy-headed ho’s” is certainly objectionable, and, depending on your opinion, grounds for his dismissal, the uproar over his remarks has revealed a crucial fallacy in today’s racial discourse.

When denouncing Imus’ bigotry, numerous pundits have maintained that his comments would have been no less offensive had he been black himself, a sentiment nicely expressed by ESPN.com columnist Jemele Hill, who wrote, “In case you’re wondering, I would have been equally outraged if Imus were black, Asian, Latino, Portuguese, or Italian. The ethnicity or skin color of the perpetrator matters none.” Hill’s logic is a common feature of the conversation on racism. There is often an attempt to create an equality of offensiveness—to maintain that certain statements are identically racist no matter who utters them.

Yet from the start, this approach yields problems. In the Imus affair, many pointed out that while the radio host was castigated for calling a team of mostly black women “ho’s,” African-American hip-hop artists use the term frequently with impunity. If there is really no difference between Don Imus and Snoop Dogg, then why does society consider one a bigot and the other acceptable?

Well, Snoop has an answer. When asked whether his use of the term was comparable to Imus’, Dogg angrily responded, “First of all, we ain’t no old-ass white men that sit up on MSNBC going hard on black girls. We are rappers that have these songs coming from our minds and our souls that are relevant to what we feel. I will not let them mutha—as say we in the same league as him.” Snoop may be a little rough around the edges but he has a point: The same utterance is qualitatively different when it comes out of Snoop Dogg’s mouth than when it comes out of Don Imus’ in part because Snoop is African-American and Imus isn’t.

The desire to evaluate comments independently of their origin is understandable—there is something disconcerting about holding people of different races to different standards in the name of promoting racial tolerance and equality. But the logic here is flawed. The race, religion, and ethnicity of a person are all significant factors in determining the offensiveness of what he says or writes. Meaning is inherently dependent on context. The same words, used by different people in different circumstances, carry entirely different connotations.

In areas not regarding race, we accept this fact without question. As a general rule, the standards for appropriate self-criticism are different from those for acceptable criticism of others. I may think that my mother is cruel, controlling, and manipulative—I might even say as much—but if you diss my family, it is still offensive. As John Lennon once quipped, “I can knock The Beatles, but don’t let Mick Jagger knock them.”

Our instincts tell us to apply the same basic principles to racial dialogue, and in practice we usually do. Even the staunchest advocates of equal opportunity racism must admit that contemporary culture grants a special leeway to public figures who mock their own ethnic group. It is hard to imagine that a white Dave Chappelle would have much success casually tossing around the n-word on national television. Similarly, if a gentile comedian told us to “throw the Jew down the well,” it would lead to an uproar, but when Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat character did, it landed him a hit TV show and an Oscar-nominated film.

Is it really irrational that we are willing to tolerate self-deprecating racial humor but not Don Imus? Race doesn’t determine intelligence or character, and it shouldn’t affect a person’s opportunities in life, but this does not mean it can’t alter the offensiveness of speech or writing. Race may be an artificial construct, but so is racist language. The very nature of language dictates that offensiveness is dependent on identity.

Words are just words. Terms like “nigger,” “kike,” and “spic” are not inherently evil. It is the connotations they pick up over years of use that turns them into instruments of hate. Racial epithets such as these evoke different connotations and become more or less offensive depending on who says them.

Could society possibly arrive at a point where race had no effect on meaning? Perhaps, but it is hard to imagine that racist language could still exist in such a color-blind world. In the mean time, racism is unequal because language is unequal, and the offensiveness of what you say depends both on the color of your skin and the content of your character.

So turn off Don Imus (well, he’s been turned off), put on Snoop Dogg’s latest release (“Tha Blue Carpet Treatment”), and don’t worry about hypocrisy.



Daniel E. Herz-Roiphe ’10, a Crimson editorial editor, lives in Straus Hall.

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