2006-12-14 / This Week's Attitude

This Week’s Attitude

How Can Money Negate Racist Humiliation?
By Neil S. Friedman


The adage “sticks and stones will break your bones, but words will never harm you” doesn’t mean much to anyone who has ever been put down with a racial or cultural epithet.

While sticks and stones may ultimately be more physically dangerous, hateful words can produce a lasting psychological scar.

Last month when comedian Michael Richards verbally assaulted a group of African-Americans at a Los Angeles night club with a racial epithet-laced flare-up, in which he uttered the loathsome N-word several times, he seemed more like some out-of-control bigot on PCP than the actor who portrayed the wacky, but lovable Kramer on “Seinfeld.”

Within days after his outburst, Richards was granted several minutes on David Letterman’s show, thanks to comedian Jerry Seinfeld, who relinquished his stand-up segment so his friend could convey his regrets. Richards appeared edgy and awkward, but his apology, despite uncalled for laughter from the audience some of whom obviously thought his presentation was in his “Kramer” character, seemed sincere.

Although Richards was sober during his racial rant — unlike Mel Gibson’s liquor-induced anti-Semitic rage during a traffic stop several months ago — his excessive temper could prove to be detrimental to a career that has noticeably leveled off since the hit TV sitcom ended several years ago.

Richards continued to atone and apologize to the African-American community, by meeting with several black leaders, including Jesse Jackson and the Rev. Al Sharpton, in an attempt to convince them he wasn’t a racist.

In spite of this, two of the men Richards targeted in his rage argued that they were the ones with whom the comedian should have met to ask forgiveness — after they hired attorney Gloria Allred, noted for handling discrimination cases.

No sooner did Allred and her clients begin making the talk show rounds than it became clear that more — much more — than an apology was their primary goal. Allred called Richards’ attack “hate speech,” which ignored the scenario in which it occurred, although America’s judicial system has decided to separate that from the First Amendment right to free speech. Nevertheless, any monetary settlement would cheapen and weaken their professed anger and embarrassment — albeit not the injustice of Richard’s eruption.

Richards was, categorically, shamefully rude, but perhaps his flare-up was not uttered with the same degree of venom as the type of hatred characteristically churned out by rednecks or white supremacists, which is not an excuse for what the comedian said, but one analysis of his offensive response to heckling.

In one interview when Allred was asked if she would be seeking “in the neighborhood” of five million dollars for her clients, she refused to provide a definitive answer, possibly implying that a larger amount might be brokered.

But can two black men who claim to have been totally embarrassed by Richards’ moment of unjustified anger be pleased with a monetary settlement when every African-American was likely disturbed by the incident? Unless they plan to donate any ensuing financial reward to some worthy cause, can any amount justify such degradation?

Neither this writer nor any white person can ever fully comprehend the hurt and humiliation of what it’s like to be scorned with the N-word — just as Gentiles don’t grasp the pain and anger Jews feel when they are demeaned by anti-Semitic slurs or how devout, respectable Muslims feel when they are categorized with terrorists. Nevertheless, it is time for every black leader, politician, parent or anyone with an iota of influence in the community, to admonish black youths, who seem to use it in casual conversation with their peers, to cease using the contemptible N-word (plus ho’s and the B-word for women while they’re at it). No ifs, ands, or buts. Even so, African-Americans with an attitude and little respect for others probably won’t refrain from speaking the word, but they will continue to find it offensive when non-blacks utter it, no matter what the context.

When the late comedian Richard Pryor used the word in his act in the late sixties, it wasn’t meant to demean or humiliate, so it came off as unscathing humor in a specific framework. Nowadays, Chris Rock and other black successors to Pryor often use the word in a humorous context. It’s safe to presume that many African-Americans find the use of the word by black comedians acceptable because of the circumstance, though there are likely some who always find it objectionable regardless of the situation.

In these politically correct times, certain classic literature, such as Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn,” has been banned from a few schools across the country because they contain THAT word, which wasn’t considered offensive when they were published. There are other books and films that contain the word, but in most cases, it is suitable and usually acceptable considering the cultural context.

According to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, the N-word did not originate as a slur, but became one when it was used as a vulgar adaptation of “Negro” and gradually became a derogatory and extremely offensive connotation over time, especially in the 20th century.

There have been debates that when African-Americans casually use the phrase in conversation it is interpreted as a term of endearment. Some even argue that when they use the word its shame is diminished. However, when some whites in earshot hear it uttered, they are shocked that it is tolerated.

The N-word to African-Americans — like the K-word to Jews, the M-word to the Irish, the W-word to Italians, the S-word to Hispanics, the G-word to Asians or the tomahawk chop to Native Americans — is in every respect cruel and degrading. If influential blacks can’t persuade members of their race to refrain from using the word in conversation, then decent members of that community must educate their peers to just say “No” to the N-word.

Henceforth, those who continue to use the vile, contemptible word are nothing more than ignorant White Trash.

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