Washington Incident Raises Debate on Power of Slurs

By Phil Kloer
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

January 28, 2007

Like a law of physics updated for the media age, first comes the slur, then the reaction.

Michael Richards goes berserk in a nightclub, hurling the n-word over and over at hecklers. The shock is universal, fueled in part by the cell phone video of the meltdown.

Isaiah Washington "Grey's Anatomy" star called a fellow actor a bad name and entered rehab.

"Grey's Anatomy" star Isaiah Washington uses a slur against gays -- sometimes called the f-word -- in reference to a co-star, T.R. Knight. The reaction from the gay community is strong, but not as widespread or deeply felt throughout the culture.

[Note: In this article, "f-word" does not mean "fuck" but "faggot." -- R. Aman]

Certain words might still be as explosive as bombs, but some pack more megatons than others.

"If you could assign a cultural value to the unacceptability of words, the n-word is at the top of the list, no question," says Robert Thompson, professor of popular culture at Syracuse University.

But Melissa Carter, co-host of "The Bert Show" on Atlanta's Q100 radio station, has tried to use the two incidents to discuss the hurtfulness of both words. "As a society, we understand the n-word should not be said," Carter says, "but we don't understand that the f-word should not be said."

When she said on air that the f-word is equivalent to the n-word, though, the phone lines lit up with angry callers who said nothing is as strong as the old racial epithet.

Washington met Monday with GLAAD, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, and apologized again for directing the f-word against Knight. On Wednesday, he entered a treatment facility and issued a statement that he had begun counseling. (Washington first used the word on the "Grey's" set in October and then again last week at the Golden Globes. After the Globes, ABC issued a harsh statement saying Washington's language was being addressed, and Washington issued a lengthy apology.)

In a bit of timing that you couldn't script, Washington's meeting with GLAAD came during National No-Name Calling Week, a project run by several groups that reach out to schools.

To some extent, the controversies over the words reflect the spectrums in which they reside: black-white and straight-gay.

"The racial element gets the n-word much more attention," says Reinhold Aman, editor of Maledicta, an academic journal about bad language. "Race is more important in America, so this word gets more attention than any of the other slurs."

It also has a much deeper history of controversy, from parents trying to get "The Adventure of Huckleberry Finn" banned from schools to its role in the O.J. Simpson trial, when prosecutor Christopher Darden called it "the filthiest, dirtiest, nastiest word in the English language."

But some gays want the mainstream to react against the f-word as strongly as the n-word -- even though GLAAD president Neil Giuliano says that's beside the point.

"I think it does a disservice to try to equate the words," Giuliano says. "They don't need to be compared or equalized to be very offensive."

Samuel Taylor, a Virginia-based corporate diversity trainer and author of the book "Why Do African-Americans Call Themselves the N . . . Word?," says "we have a long way to go" with dialogue over controversial words.

The situation isn't helped, he says, by groups using the forbidden words among themselves but being upset when outsiders use them. Following Richards' outburst last year, there was a debate in African American communities over whether young blacks and hip-hop stars using the word often was empowering or playing into racial stereotypes.

"Sometimes people will do that to take the sting out of it," Taylor says. But he compares blacks using the n-word and gays using the f-word to the Stockholm Syndrome, where powerless hostages start to identify with their captors.

"They're identifying themselves through the dominant culture, using the dominant culture's terms to address one another," he says.

The late comedian Richard Pryor built his early act on aggressive use of the n-word but later renounced it. After a trip to Africa in 1979, he wrote in his autobiography that "to this day, I wish I'd never said the word. It was misunderstood by people. They didn't get what I was talking about. Neither did I."

Among gays, the f-word has not traveled nearly the same distance as queer, which used to be a slur but then was "taken back" by gay activists and is now part of the title of mainstream TV show, "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy." Thompson points out he knows fellow professors who have "Queer Studies" printed proudly on their business cards.

GLAAD's Giuliano and Q100's Carter, who is gay, say they rarely hear gays call one another the f-word. Aaron Rutledge, a gay freshman at Emory University, said he hears it, usually in a joking context.

"These words will be defanged when the basic fundamental problem has been excised," Thompson says. "Take away the problem, and you take away the power of the word.

"But we seem to be more anxious to take away the power of the word than we are to take away the problem."

Copyright 2001-2007 Cox Texas Newspapers, L.P.
Copyright 2007 by Phil Kloer

This article was republished in
The Austin American-Statesman (Austin, Texas).


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