I have one or two unregenerate acquaintances who insist that it’s OK to refer to African-Americans with the N-word because some African-Americans refer to themselves that way.
But the lameness of this position is obvious. I’m not sure that it’s a good idea for anybody to use the N-word under any circumstances, but no white person has the right to exploit a black person’s decision to defuse one of our most odious racial epithets by putting it to ironic and facetious use.
If need be, this point can be illustrated in a number of ways. Comedian Jeff Foxworthy has made a living by calling himself a redneck but that doesn’t give a northeastern liberal the right to use the term as an insult.
Musician, writer and perennial candidate for governor of Texas Kinky Friedman founded a band called The Texas Jewboys, but that doesn’t give the rest of us the right to employ the array of anti-Semitic insults that have been applied to Jews over the centuries.
And while I might call myself an old, uh, codger, that doesn’t give you the right to do so.
This basic principle of civility came to mind last week when the Washington Redskins found some support for their effort to defend their storied trademark in a ruling by the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in Washington.
The court struck down a law that permitted the government to reject trademarks that it considers offensive or disparaging. The case in question involved an Asian-American rock band whose trademark application for their name, The Slants, had been rejected by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
According to the New York Times, the frontman for The Slants, Simon Shiao Tam, said the band chose the ethnic epithet in order to undercut slurs that band members had heard since childhood. The appeals courts reversed a lower court’s support for the Patent Office’s rejection of the name, ruling that “It is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment that the government may not penalize private speech merely because it disapproves of the message it conveys.”
Quite so. The First Amendment is the transcendent principle that prevents our government from controlling speech. In fact, few things would be more un-American than a government that had the power to order the Redskins to do away with a name, despite its history as a demeaning slur.
Still, I like the principle at the top of the column, which implies that while Native Americans have every right to make ironic use of the term “redskins,” the rest of us do not.
Back to the quintessential racial slur, the N-word: Our nation has come a long way since slavery, reconstruction, Jim Crow and public portrayals of African-Americans from the 50s such as “Amos ’n’ Andy.” In Stephen King’s breakout novel, “Carrie,” published in 1974, a young high school jerk slaps his girlfriend, and “her lip puffed to negroid size,” which is a phrase I’m betting King doesn’t use anymore.
But the fact that some blacks can still use the N-word for ironic effect and that an Asian-American band still has a reason to call itself The Slants implies that we haven’t reached the happy land of racial blindness. So do the deaths of Freddie Gray, Eric Garner and Trayvon Martin.
Indeed, the development of blindness toward the various distinctions among our citizenry - gender, race, sexual orientation, disability and so on - is an ongoing project that is easily threatened with setbacks by something as trivial as a few accusations of too much political correctness.
Still, we’re slowly becoming more aware of the distinction between remembering the Confederates who devoted considerable courage to maintaining white supremacy and commemorating them. And while they show no signs of it yet, maybe even the Redskins will come around. It’s only a football team.
So while black Americans have earned the right to use the N-word if they see fit, our grand goal should be to create a culture in which they no longer see the need.
ABOUT THE WRITER
John M. Crisp, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. Readers may send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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