Friday, March 24, 2006

A slip of the tongue?

An American radio host has been fired after only 2 weeks in his job, for an alleged racial slur against Condoleezza Rice. In today's Guardian it's reported that the presenter used the word "coon" when he claimed he meant to say "coup". So was this a genuine mistake for which he should be forgiven, or a deliberate dig at an African-American politician?

Looking at the word "coon" itself tells us quite a bit about the origins of racist terms used to label Black people in America. According to etymology online, the word "coon" is derived from a "barracoos", buildings constructed to house slaves. Looking at other terms like "nigger" and "negro" tells us a great deal about the historical roots of racism and the shifts in semantics many words go through over time.

You could do worse than look at this link from Ferris University which offers a history and wide-ranging discussion of the word "nigger".

Given the sordid and shameful origins of many of these offensive words, is it therefore fair to castigate someone who uses them, regardless of their supposed intentions, or should we look at the intent behind a word's use before criticising? The case of the Leeds University lecturer, Frank Ellis who (it is claimed) believes white people are more intelligent than black people, and that the BNP are "too socialist", perhaps underlines this problem. His views are probably much more offensive to most people than what might have been an unintended slip of the tongue from the American radio host, but they are couched in a more academic language and avoid the crass shock value of racist epithets. Perhaps this makes his views more dangerous?

This takes us into more theoretical areas of language and thought, which can be explored by looking at theories such as linguistic relativism and linguistic determinism, as well as the whole PC debate.

Useful for:
ENA1 - Language & Representation
ENA6 - Language Debates


Fran said...

After reading the Ferris Uni link, deep down i realise that the notorious 'N-Word' has always amazed me; both for the ignorance and bile of White supremacist and the equal short-sightedness and naivete of Black Americans and indeed Blacks globally. If perjoration has occured through the word's reclamation in hip-hop culture why does the atmosphere get so tentative when a White person uses it in the presence of Black people?
For me the word nigger is just like a cigarette, if your self destructive enough to expose yourself to knowingly harmful and hurtful consequences and reprecussions do it on your own terms and not in my name, for I never have been and never will be a Nigger.
*Francesca Andrews*

Dan said...

I like the way you put it! I've never really bought the semantic reclamation idea 100% as I suspect that for older generations of Black British people, the n-word has only ever been heard in racist insults and in old-fashioned stereotypes. And for 90% of the white British population it's still a term of abuse, nothing else.

On top of that, those originally reclaiming the word (like Richard Pryor back in the 1970s) knew of its explosive potential and were playing with fire; they could handle it because they were smart and aware of its poitical dimensions. Could the same be said for mumbling, lame-brained idiots like 50 Cent or D12, who seem to me to use the word so unthinkingly that they play to the worst stereotypes of what the word means?

It's still, for me , the worst word anyone can use, and I've had to think hard about using it in lessons on language and racism, but if we can't discuss it openly, we're not really discussing it at all. I still cringe when I hear white people trying to use it in a "black" way, and don't really like it when I hear it being used in this way by black people either, but who cares what I say, I'm white, dammit!