Associate Professor Jabari Asim was one of several guests on the HuffPost Live video web chat on the Huffington Post site March 6, speaking about the dangers of using hostile epithets in public discourse.
Asim, of the Writing, Literature and Publishing Department, and author of The N Word: Who Can Say It, Who Shouldn’t, and Why (Houghton Mifflin, 2007), said that above all, slurs used to offend racial groups or people with mental disabilities should not be used in most public settings.
“The public square is where this careless language has no particular place,” he said.
The HuffPost discussion was meant to focus on Americans’ increasing reluctance on using the word “retarded” because it has been deemed offensive by many.
“Ben Franklin said that we were all born ignorant, but one must work hard to remain stupid,” said Lawrence Carter-Long, spokesman for the National Council on Disabilities, during the discussion. “That’s where we are with the ‘R-word’ [and] these terms. If you want to continue using them, you’re showing yourself to be not one who’s thoughtful [or] cares about others.”
“I totally challenge the idea that the word can function as a term of endearment,”
The conversation also veered into the racial slur commonly referred to as the “N-word.”
Asim said he does not support complete censorship of the word because it can be used in an educational context.
“I argue that even with the ‘N-word’ there are certain categories in which nuanced discussion and examination of the word is possible,” Asim said. “One is scholarship. How can you look at the history of racism in this country without looking at the language of racists?
“Another is art, satire,” Asim continued. “For example, would I not want George Carlin or Richard Pryor to refrain from using racial epithets in their art, which in fact, advances our understanding of racial injustice in society?”
The discussion also examined the increasingly common notion that many African Americans are trying to reclaim the N-word by using it among themselves.
“I totally challenge the idea that the word can function as a term of endearment,” Asim said.
“If there’s any word African Americans would want to claim in the entire American vernacular, it would not be that one. That would be the least likely one,” Asim continued. “What’s problematic about the idea of reclaiming is that it suggests the word somehow was the province once of African Americans, and, of course, it never was.”
Asim recently wrote the children’s book Fifty Cents and a Dream: Young Booker T. Washington, which was reviewed recently in the New York Times.