A comedy club is an unlikely venue for a discussion of race in America, but the recent experience of “Seinfeld” alum Michael Richards shows us that even funnymen can be forced to confront the issues of prejudice and bigotry. In a now famous tirade, Richards spewed racial epithets at two black hecklers in his audience. Richards has apologized, saying he is “deeply, deeply sorry” for the incident. The comedian says that his verbal assault was based on anger, not bigotry.
There can be no doubt that it is wrong for the “n-word” to be hurled at an African-American. The very word conjures up images of lynchings, firehoses, slave quarters, and whips. No man or woman should be labeled on the basis of skin color.
There are certain words that we teach our children are off-limits in our homes. We want our children to be respectful in their speech—to avoid vulgarities and obscenities that trivialize sex and the functions of the human body. We want our children to speak with dignity and grace—to communicate even disagreement with civility and style.
But are certain words acceptable for people of a certain racial group—and not for others? In other words, is the “n-word” bad in and of itself—or only when used by a non-black?In recent years, it has become increasingly popular for young blacks to use the “n-word” when referring to a friend—a politically-incorrect replacement for “brother” or “dude.” Black comedians, mostly notably Richard Pryor, have used the politically-charged word throughout their comedy routines. It’s been argued that such an inversion of the word is a way for blacks to reclaim their identity—in other words, to somehow take the word from the mouth of the slaveholder and make it their own.
Yet, even in black popular culture, the word can still carry derision. That’s clear when Snoop Dogg unleashes it in the film, “Baby Boy,” and when the character Ms. Tate repeats it in the “Antoine Fisher Story.” It’s also evident in the rap music world, where violence has been an all-too-common companion.
It’s hard to imagine slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King embracing any use, casual or otherwise, of the “n-word.” It directly contradicts his admonition to judge people on the content of their character rather than on the color of their skin.
In the end, our words define us—whatever the color of our skin might be. We simply cannot get away with condemning some comedians who use racial slurs, while applauding others who do so. To engage in such selective condemnation gives rise to the kind of double-talk that creates moral confusion—and leads to further cracks in the nation’s racial divide.