LINGUIST List 4.319

Tue 27 Apr 1993

Disc: Racial terms

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  1. , Re: 4.308 Racial terms
  2. benji wald, Re: 4.308 Racial terms

Message 1: Re: 4.308 Racial terms

Date: Mon, 26 Apr 93 11:48:44 -0700
From: <>
Subject: Re: 4.308 Racial terms
Michael Newman says that "an automatic response to words rather than meanings
is unfortunate," but it is always a combination of meaning and perceived
situational context that people respond to. The use of offensive group tags
in a situation where offense is not supposed to be taken is tied to the
perception of group membership of conversational participants. In-group
verbal behavior has very different rules and liberties than inter-group
behavior. People who are at the edges of group membership, such as whites
who are close friends with blacks, or straights who are close to gays,
may sometimes use the terms to show they are socially members of the group,
but their attempts to do this may backfire.
 Joking reference to different groups is also subject to censure when
the same joke may be inoffensive in an in-group context. In our department
office we have recycling bins labelled "white paper" and "colored paper".
Someone wrote on the colored paper label "We don't say colored paper any
more -- we say paper of color." A student of color became very offended
at this joke. In a conversation about it afterwards, this student confided
to me that offense would not have been taken if the joke had been posted
in the Ethnic Studies dept where people of color are in the majority,
rather than in the linguistic dept, where students, staff and faculty
are mostly white.
 In my sociolinguistics class one day a couple of weeks ago, we
were discussing the in-group usage of offensive terms, and a Jewish student
said she doesn't think Jews ever try to co-opt offensive terms in this
way. If that is true, why would some minority groups co-opt offensive
terms for in-group usage, while some would not?
Leanne Hinton
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Message 2: Re: 4.308 Racial terms

Date: Tue, 27 Apr 93 19:46 PDT
From: benji wald <IBENAWJMVS.OAC.UCLA.EDU>
Subject: Re: 4.308 Racial terms
I think Michael Newman may be misperceiving whether the use of the term
"nigger" in its intimate African American use is spreading as much as he
 suggests. Biracial use among friends is OK because the situation prevents
 misunderstanding, e.g., by bystanders who might be offended. Puerto Rican
 use is a special case because of the influence of black speech on some
 NY PR communities. Therefore, it is important to know if the apparent
 white users were Puerto Rican or not. This may indicate a limitation to
 the usefulness of this kind of casual sociolinguistic research, esp. if
 you can't recognize a NY PR accent -- which, granted, not ALL NY Puerto
 Ricans have -- but the ones who adopt "nigger" should have either a
 noticeable NY Puerto Rican or Black influenced accent. I don't believe
 without further proof that NY white kids in general are adopting this use.
 For one thing, they are likely to be scared to use it in public, at least
 with blacks able to hear. And they can't use it effectively with such a
 constraint. So, I just don't believe this report.
 Mike's other point on the modelling of "queer" on "nigger" is something
 else. That is probably an accurate interpretation, although the strategy
 of inverting negative terms to positive in-group uses is more widespread
 in the world than assuming "nigger" as the source for all such uses can
 bear. For that matter, it is not clear that "nigger" originated among
 Black speakers through such an inversion process, cf. the use of "neg" for
 "person" in Haitian (from French negre, since the 60s considered racist)
 Finally, and I welcome Mike's reaction here, as far as inversion, the
 equivalent to "nigger" for "gay" should be "fag". In the past I have
 heard gays familiarly use this term with each other, and I have understood
 it to have agressive, defiant implications -- not characteristic of "nigger"
 used by blacks, where it is simply a "natural" term with a long history
 quite beside the white connotations. Still, like with slang terms, I accept
 that the gay community may have abstracted FOR their model what they
 understood the term to mean to Blacks.
 All this is beside the point that there is public and private speech, and
 they have different norms. Regardless of freedom of speech, public speech
 is very restricted because of the pressure for uniformity in a huge society
 of strangers. I'll be interested in seeing whether the case mentioned
 reaches the supreme court.
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