ethnic and racial slurs

Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words ...

As a Caucasian woman of a certain age, I have seldom been called a name that hurt. The one incident I remember occurred when I was a girl walking to Catholic school in my neat blue uniform on a day when the public school kids had a holiday.
Some older boys were up a tree I had to walk beneath, and as I did they taunted me. I forget what words they used. Mackerel snapper?  Maybe it was only, "Oh, little Catholic school girl, has to go to school." But it was the first time I saw myself as part of a group that was vulnerable to attack. Names like "saucer eyes" and "Mary Ann the garbage can," these were laughable and cause for a better comeback or the toss of a snowball in the right direction. But Catholic school girl? Why would I be taunted for something like that? I was one of the lucky ones who was sure to get to heaven after a nice safe life on the west (good) side of my town. So my parents had taught me.

I can only imagine the feelings of individuals who have regularly suffered racial, ethnic or cultural slurs. Homo, wop, spic, wog, nigger, kike, hunky.

Now I'm working on a novel set in the days when these words were commonly used, and a potential publisher has asked me to consider how to soften their effect on contemporary readers without losing historical accuracy. Like the term nigger, or nigga, which rap groups and sports players and stand-up comics use jokingly, which began which as a shortened form of negro, the words were not always meant to slur. In fact, in the early 1900's it was so common among working class people in particular to refer to someone as a hunky or a dago, it would be dishonest to make a young woman of the same class particularly sensitive to the potential harm of those words. There is no reason she should have been sensitive. Immigrants from Europe and the American South were crowding into northern cities and, like now, people felt threatened. It was easier to define oneself by drawing ethnic and racial boundaries. But it didn't always mean a lack of respect for the person you were, technically, slurring. Putting myself in her place, as writers do to imagine a character's life, I hear my young woman saying, the little wop newsboy with affection. Perhaps it is different for those of Italian background, but wop has never seemed as menacing to me as nigger, the very sound of which seems to be accompanied by the spit of some white supremacist tobacco farmer. But am I slurring tobacco farmers, particularly white ones, with that remark? In my novel, the only people who say nigger are the two most bigoted. I didn't realize this until I combed through the manuscript looking for such references and wondering what to do with them, but it works that the limited use of that word is confined to men who represented, even caused, the worst of the racial tension at that time. As for colored and Negro, well those were considered polite at the time and even the NAACP still uses the word colored. One other thing I noticed in my review, though, was that in referring to her own kind, my character didn't use what we know now as the ethnic slurs she used for other groups. That showed something about her that I didn't want in her character. If she's looking for a hunky delicatessen, or buying a paper from a little wop newsboy, she should also be going to church with the other Mick's or Paddy's or bog trotters in the neighbourhood, I've decided.

When I was researching my play "Imperfect," about the institutionalization of the developmentally disabled, I found that words like idiot, moron and such had been actual definitions of intellectual capacity. Someone with a iq of below 70 was defined as a moron, an imbecile, or - the lowest - an idiot. Of course the words are not used that way today, but when an angry driver rolls down his window to yell at another driver, "You moron!" does he know that he's assigning a certain iq level and in doing so impugning the driving abilities of a whole class of people he doesn't even know?

The way we speak changes with the times, but politically correct or not, neutralizing language doesn't work in literature because it has to be true. By leaving the slurs in my book, a choice that other serious writers have also made, I am being true to the times and to the sorts of people on whom my characters are based. The language provides context for the situation that erupts towards the end. I am hoping that a disclaimer at the beginning of the book will encourage contemporary readers to see the sense of my choice and not to take any name-calling personally.  Because I understand that while it's true that sticks and stones may break your bones, words can hurt just as much.

On slurs