op-ed

If You Have To Google It, It’s Not A Racial Slur

The most surreal scene in SoldiersWidowGate – the media’s feckless anti-Trump controversy du jour – was Congresswoman Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.) bristling at being called an “empty barrel,” which she called a “racist term.”

(White House Chief of Staff John Kelly used it to blast the legislator for her attack on the president’s supposedly insensitive comments toward a military widow, which Wilson had witnessed.)

Bizarrely, Wilson said she was unaware the term was racist until “we looked it up in the dictionary.” She hasn’t named the dictionary, and fact etymologists and experts at racial linguistics have never heard of the term. It’s certainly not listed in the Racial Slur Database (a real thing) among its thousand or so terms with a supposed anti-black connotation.

Many of those “slurs” sound perfectly unobjectionable, at least to those without hyper-sensitive racial antennae. For example, several foods are itemized: apple (hangs from a tree), butter (sounds like you-know-what), cookie (black sailors could once only work in the kitchen), and jellybean (“everybody hates the black ones”).

For a term to be a legitimate slur, its racist connotation must be known to both the speaker and the hearer – no fair peeking at the dictionary.

Racists can twist any word they want into an epithet – and in fact, the slur dictionary says “pretzel” is a sometime stand-in for the N-word. Because they inure the public to real racial animus, squabbles over fake slurs deserve rebuke. One such incident happens to be the plot trigger (can I say trigger?) for Philip Roth’s 2000 novel The Human Stain, in which a college professor is forced out for referring to students who had never shown up to class (who he didn’t know were African-American) as “spooks.”

Perhaps the most famous such scandal ended all viable presidential prospects for Sen. George Allen (R-Va.), after he called a South Asian staffer for his Democrat opponent “macaca.” Allen claimed the term was self-invented gibberish, which it almost certainly was. However, once Democrats discovered that since the 19th century, the Belgians and the Portuguese (though virtually nobody else) have used the term to disparage blacks, they pounced. Though the staffer wasn’t black and Allen wasn’t Belgian, the senator, painted as just another Southern racist, repeatedly had to apologize. He lost re-election and has not returned to public office.

Or consider the 1999 controversy involving David Howard, a white aide to the African-American mayor of Washington, D.C. Howar described a budget plan as “niggardly,” an SAT word meaning stingy. A black colleague objected that the term sounded like a racial slur, and Howard resigned.

Similarly, a jury awarded an African-American employee of Tyson Food Chicken more than a million dollars because he complained of being told “Boy, you better get going.” (“Boy” was a common infantilizing term for black men in the pre-civil rights South.) But he wasn’t told, “Get going, boy.” At the beginning of an English sentence, “Boy” is a benign interjection – like “Gee whiz” or ”Golly.” Thankfully, higher courts reversed the award.

Just this January, President Trump was assailed for proclaiming “America First” in his Inaugural Address, since the slogan evoked a pro-fascist 1930s movement popular among anti-Semites. Though the term was unknown to most Americans – I have an advanced degree in Jewish history and barely remembered it – it served the purposes of those who wanted to slander the president as a fellow traveler of Jew-haters.

And my own 2015 essay on affirmative action, “The Jig Is Up: Diversity Doesn’t Matter,” was blasted online for using a shorthand term for “jigaboo,” or using a term that referred to the movements of lynched blacks, or both.

In his 1978 Oscar-winning film Annie Hall, Woody Allen’s neurotic character complained that a work colleague had asked “Jew eat?” instead of “Did you eat?”. The line was supposed to be funny – and it was. When racial provocateurs like Wilson similarly find slurs behind every tree (can I say behind every tree?) we should laugh as well.

David Benkof is a columnist for The Daily Caller. Follow him on Twitter (@DavidBenkof) or Facebook, or E-mail him at [email protected].


Perspectives expressed in op-eds are not those of The Daily Caller.