The Sting of Slurs

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By Jabari Asim
Monday, November 6, 2006; 11:00 PM

Even after all these years, we are still astir over slurs.

In our calmer, self-congratulatory moments, we may convince ourselves otherwise. Sure, our children might memorize insulting lyrics as if they were poems by Langston Hughes. And their casual use of the N-word sometimes makes their dialogue sound less like banter between friends and more like the rallying cries at a Klan convention. Despite this, we blithely dismiss any misgivings we may have as the clueless mutterings of an out-of-touch, out-of-tune generation.

Kids will be kids, we say. Rappers will be rappers, and the rest of us know better.

But then someone says something that stirs us from our candy-coated denial. A movie star rants about Jews. A senator's vicious tirade against an Indian-American is captured on video. And more recently, Florida state Rep. Rafael Arza, a Republican, used a slur during a heated phone conversation with Gustavo A. Barreiro, his colleague and fellow party member. Incensed, House Democrats declared their refusal to sit in the same chamber with him. Because it was Barreiro who had accused Arza of slur-slinging in the first place, we can't blame the Democrats' outrage entirely on self-righteous political grandstanding. Although undoubtedly there was some of that.

Arza called Barreiro, who identifies himself as Hispanic, a racist slur often aimed at blacks -- the maddeningly vague descriptions in news accounts suggest it was the N-word -- because Barreiro accused him of repeatedly referring to Miami-Dade school superintendent Rudy Crew, who is black, with that same slur. Confused? Arza's explanation doesn't help much.

"My anger got the best of me in this situation," Arza wrote in a letter to Dudley Goodlette, head of the Florida House Rules Committee. "As a result, I called Mr. Barreiro and used foul language and a racially insensitive word directed as offensive street slang solely at Mr. Barreiro and no one else."

Invoking the Mel Gibson defense, Arza blamed his outburst on drunkenness. Soon after, he resigned his House seat under pressure.

"It hurts me that someone would classify me as a racist," Arza said without a trace of irony, as reported by The New York Times. "I wish it could be a better ending. But right now, it's not."

So the message for all of us, I suppose, is don't drink and talk.

For further enlightenment on this complex subject, we may turn to Sen. George Allen of Virginia, who lately has spent much time slip-sliding through the minefield of ethnic sensitivities. Recently he pointed out occurrences of the N-word in novels written by his opponent, James Webb. Allen, who earlier had denounced as "aspersions" suggestions that he was Jewish, also cited examples of sexist and sexual language in Webb's fiction as evidence of his unfitness for office. He even trotted out a black conservative to reinforce the implication that Webb is racist.

Mychal Massie, chairman of a group called Project 21, said of Webb's works, "Speaking as a writer, a person tends to write what they believe in. Even in presenting a fictional writing the author writes from a core philosophy -- an intrinsic philosophy."

Let me make sure I understand. When Toni Morrison wrote about incest in "The Bluest Eye" she was actually advocating the practice? And when Mark Twain put hateful speech in the mouths of some of his characters, he was actually endorsing such beliefs? If that's the case, what are we waiting for? Let's get those bonfires going.

The works of Morrison and Twain will hardly be alone. Ralph Ellison, into the flames. Harriet Beecher Stowe, up in smoke. And let's not even get started on Philip Roth.

The stir about slurs -- and the notion that an author's fiction could be confused with his philosophy -- well, it boggles my mind, such as it is. The whole mess leaves me longing for a place to regroup. You know, a haven where folks like me can find shelter from the confusion. That's exactly the kind of refuge allegedly offered at "niggaspace," a Web site created by the pseudonymous "Tyrone." In an e-mail interview with FishbowlNY, Tyrone said the site "is in no way meant to be racist. He just wanted to create a space where "black people can feel comfortable."

People who might be puzzled by the name of the site are probably just confusing Tyrone's word with the N-word, he suggested. The former, Tyrone said, is a "common endearing term used by many black people." Common as in coarse or vulgar? I'll grant him that.

But "nigga" and "endearing"? Never the Twain shall meet.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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