Sticks and Stones
State of Race panel discusses racial slurs

The American language is littered with racial slurs, says Harvard Professor of Law Randall Kennedy.

“These words have often been used to humiliate. They’ve often been used to terrorize. They’ve often been used to subjugate. These words have provided the soundtrack for countless episodes of racially motivated violence—and they still do,” said Kennedy, author of Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word, speaking at the College Council’s seventh-annual “State of Race” forum on April 11 in the Woodruff P. E. Center Arena. “These are powerful words, words that make us anxious, and they’ve often had blood dripping off them. But words—all words—are complicated. I would make the controversial point that even the most notorious can mean a variety of things, depending on the context in which it is used.”

Kennedy, Provost Earl Lewis, and James M. Cox Professor of Journalism Isabel Wilkerson spoke on the topic “Racial Slurs in Modern America” to a packed house, debating what is acceptable when it comes to socially provocative, derogatory, and controversial language.

Do context and intent influence a word’s usage, asked moderator Susan Tamasi, professor of linguistics, and if so, is “a word’s past necessarily the same as its present or future?”
Kennedy asserted that “context does matter. No word, no gesture, no symbol, need mean only one thing.” He gave examples of the terms bitch, used as both a misogynous put-down and the title of a contemporary feminist journal, and queer, a term of derision and contempt also claimed by the activist group Queer Nation.

Groups have taken these words and “performed verbal jujitsu with them. That brings me to ‘n----r.’ It’s used to put down black folk.” And for precisely that reason, Kennedy said, a new generation has “made an effort to take the word away from bigots and make it an ironic gesture of solidarity.”
Provost Lewis agreed that words can sometimes “be reappropriated, can change the vectors of power.” But racial slurs, regardless of who uses them, are still used to categorize, he said. “Now that we can unravel the human genome and have discovered an amalgam of races and such minute genetic differences between races,” he said, we must develop a “new vocabulary. There’s still a problem when only black is a race, and white is some kind of normative standard.”

Professor Wilkerson, who was “raised by survivors of Jim Crow” and is the daughter of a Tuskegee airman, says that she “doesn’t use the [n-]word, personally, ever. Perhaps it should be used for historical conversations, but not modern ones.” As a journalist, she said, she can’t condone the banning of any word. “You can’t control what people say. But we may be fooling ourselves that a word can be reappropriated. Power and prejudice have a way of mutating for the times. The use of the words hos and sluts hasn’t helped us overcome sexism—male enlightenment and our achievements have.”

Kennedy concluded by saying, “I think it’s encouraging that no word, however hateful, can be our master. We have the ability to make it do our bidding.”—M.J.L.



© 2007 Emory University