Sunday, August 11, 2013

The Power of Racial Epithets

When I was a boy, my cousin learned that I really disliked a name my father had given me:  Charley-boy.  Surely my father had no malicious intent with what was simply a term of endearment, but it really bothered me, as often happens between children and parents.  So of course, my cousin picked up on its effect over me, and used it as a way to tease me.  The more I reacted to it, the more he used it.

Eventually, I found a way to stop the teasing.  I would pretend that it no longer bothered me, and any anger I felt over the use of "Charley-boy" I kept strictly to myself.  I had to learn how to show indifference with no trace of any concern in my words or in my body language.  And it worked!  After a while, he stopped using it because it no longer had any effect on me (that he could detect).  And even more interesting, the name eventually lost its power over my emotional responses.  I didn't have to pretend anymore because the name actually no longer bothered me.  I can tell the story and everyone on the planet can call me that, if they wish, and it simply wouldn't have any effect on me, apart from losing the use of my chosen nickname, Chuck, which I prefer.

The point of this bit of nostalgia in the context of this blog is simply this:  the use of ethnic slurs (spick, wop, nigger, kike, mick, raghead, camel jock, blanket-ass, frog, kraut, elephant jock, chink, jap, limey) can engender an emotional response from its targets only if they choose to grant a simple word that sort of power over them.  It's strictly voluntary!  The people who would use a racial epithet intending it as an insult take advantage of that power you have granted to the word in order to create an emotional response from you.  Words have no inherent power - they have only whatever power that we give them.  Otherwise, they're nothing more than arbitrary sounds and arbitrary letters in arbitrary combinations.  Are you insulted by 'cusquet'?  Seems unlikely - to the best of my knowledge it's not even a word that means anything.  It's just another arbitrary combination of English letters.  What inherent power could it possibly have?

Clearly, the historical abuses of bigotry, including demeaning words as ethnic insults, can't simply be wiped away.  But we can choose to render them impotent in the future.  We've tried to legislate against the use of such words, considering them to be indicators of hate and bigotry.  Perhaps they are indicators of that, but the use of, say, 'nigger' among African-Americans is clear evidence that it's not the word itself that is the problem.  It's the perceived intent.  Racial slurs have become politically incorrect and public figures who are caught using them are castigated as racists solely on the basis of using a word (as in the "Paula Dean affair").  I see this as a pointless tactic - real racists have no qualms about being politically incorrect, and non-racists are already mostly censoring themselves.  By creating sanctions for using such words, we actually are reinforcing their power over their targets.  Bigots use those words precisely because of the effect they have on the target, after all!

What I would like to see happen is that the whole set of words originally used to reflect contempt and bigotry simply become powerless.  If the words have power over your emotions, you have the capability to rescind that power.  The word that bothered you would cease to have any value to bigots because it would no longer have the effect it once did.

Feel free to use any racial epithet for white people in my presence - it never bothered me and never will, even if its use is intended to be mean-spirited.  I learned from experience that you can truly become immune to such things and defeat the intent.  Relax and let the ugly intent dissipate uselessly in the air.  If the user has bad intentions, you've defeated them by simply not allowing the emotional response.  If the user has no such bad intentions, then there was no problem in the first place. 

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