Emory Report
April 16, 2007
Volume 59, Number 27

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April 16, 2007
‘State of Race’ forum takes on ‘N’ word, Imus flap

by Carol clark

"Kike. Gook. Wop. Spic. Wetback. Honkie. Nigger. And the list goes on.”

The audience in Woodruff P.E. Center Arena shifted uncomfortably in their seats as Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy got right to the point of the College Council’s seventh annual “State of Race” forum. The topic of this year’s discussion: “Racial Slurs in Modern America.”

“The American language is littered with racial slurs,” said Kennedy, author of the bestseller “Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word.”

“These words have often been used to humiliate. They’ve often been used to terrorize. They’ve often been used to subjugate their targets. These words have provided the soundtrack for racially motivated violence — and they still do. Right now. And, actually, it’s happening daily.”

Indeed, as the national uproar over cable talk show host Don Imus’ slur against the Rutgers University women’s basketball team was reaching its apex, Emory’s College Council was engaging students, faculty and the community in a discussion of what is — and what isn’t — appropriate when it comes to controversial language.

The Rev. Al Sharpton, who had been scheduled to join the “State of Race” panel, became a central figure in the protests over Imus’ remark and canceled his Emory visit at the last minute. But several hundred people turned out on the drizzly evening to join the discussion. In addition to Kennedy, the panelists included Earl Lewis, Emory provost and executive vice president for academic affairs, and Isabel Wilkerson, the James M. Cox Professor of Journalism and the first black woman to win a Pulitzer Prize in journalism. Susan Tamasi, a lecturer in linguistics at Emory, who specializes in American English dialects, served as moderator.

The far-ranging discussion centered mainly on the word “nigger” and its notorious history. Kennedy noted that African Americans have performed a sort of “verbal jujitsu” and today sometimes use the word to make a political statement or as a sign of camaraderie.

“No word, no matter how hateful, has to be our master,” he said. “We have the ability, as the inheritors of language, to make it do our bidding.” Kennedy cited comedian Richard Pryor’s classic album “That Nigger’s Crazy” as an example.

Lewis countered that today’s casual use of the word by some African Americans was frequently not for political purposes but simply due to linguistic laziness.

Wilkerson agreed with Lewis on that point. She said that one reason she didn’t use the word herself is because of the “many, many stories” told to her by her father, a college-educated airman, who was harassed by police for driving a nice car and once had to make an emergency landing on a farm in South Carolina. “You can imagine the reaction of a white farmer to a black pilot crashing in his corn field,” she said. “My father never used the word himself, ever. What he focused on were the acts themselves and the indignities themselves. The people most likely to have heard the word in its most violent context are the least likely to use it. Of course, these people are an older generation who are passing away every day.”

A member of the audience asked the panelists to comment on whether Imus, who labeled the Rutgers athletes “nappy-headed hos,” should be forced off the air.

“Public opinion will render his fate,” Kennedy said. “Public opinion as registered through comments, through e-mails and letters.”

“His comments were just stupid,” Lewis said. “What he did was not only to insult the American public, in a way, but he was also rendering violence to those women by characterizing them in a way that had nothing to do with their athletic ability. It’s up to the public to hold him responsible.”

“I was encouraged to see the multi-racial boycott of his show,” Wilkerson said, noting that the slur that Imus used was denigrating to all women. “There shouldn’t be a double standard. If it’s not okay for Don Imus to denigrate black women, it’s not okay for 50 Cent either,” she added.

At that point in the discussion, Tamasi announced that word had just been received that NBC News had cancelled Imus’ show on its MSNBC cable news channel.

“The public has spoken,” she said, to cheers from the audience.