Fighting Words -- No Matter Who Uses Them, Racial Slurs Ultimately Serve To Denigrate And Divide

In Spokane, an elected Democratic official allegedly uses a racial slur when referring to a Hong Kong businessman during an official party meeting. The incident outrages the city's Asian-American community, which demands an apology. The official issues a written apology - and suspends herself for 60 days.

In Los Angeles, during the early morning hours, a radio talk-show host is swamped with calls from people itching to address the topic of the day: Should African Americans continue to refer to each other with language used historically to demean and denigrate them?

In Florida, an Asian-American teenager is invited to a house party. Upon arrival, he is forced to endure an onslaught of racial slurs. He tries to persuade the insulting partygoers to stop. Instead, some of them beat him to death.

In Cincinnati, Reds owner Marge Schott uses a racial slur when talking about some of her former African-American employees. She is also criticized for suggesting that the use of racial slurs, even in the public domain, is a matter of personal taste. A short time later, she is suspended.

In all of these cases, experts classify the stigmatizing language as "fighting words." Some refer to them as words of hate and division. All agree that the use of racial slurs - once thought to have decreased in usage in the public vernacular - has resurfaced across the country.

That increase, experts say, reflects the social and economic challenges of the '90s.

"When the economic conditions in society change, and people start feeling threatened about their own security, that's when it often becomes acceptable to engage in racial slurring," says Stanley Sue, professor of psychology at UCLA, who specializes in ethnicity and mental health. "It reflects hostility and fears over competition from other groups."

So what is a racial slur?

"It's a very powerful tool, and it hurts just as it is designed to do," says Robin Lakoff, professor of socio-linquistics at the University of California, Berkeley. "Racial slurs are a secret handshake. They signal to one group that we can trust each other, but we can't trust the other group.

"It builds fences in which one person or group is on one side and another group on the other side, which suggest that one person or group is better than another."

Most racial slurs evolve from people's attempts to categorize the world, linguists say. That tendency to categorize increases as the society becomes more complex and demanding. American society, with its emphasis on competition, exacerbates that condition.

Sue says America, from its very inception, encouraged a racial pecking order that, in order to be maintained, relied on an array of racial and ethnic stereotypes. And racial slurs were used to buttress that pecking order. "We, in this country, have a history of defining whites as better than other groups," Sue explains. "Blacks were brought here as slaves, the Chinese and Japanese were considered inferior, and Indians were considered savages."

The reason for those definitions, psychologists say, is simple: Negative stereotypes and the racial or ethnic slurs that are their shorthand infuse those who use them with a false sense of superiority and leaves those who are subject to them with a false sense of inferiority.

Typically, simple stereotypes or generalizations precede the emergence of racial slurs, linguists say. Often these stereotypical characterizations (for example, all African Americans are lazy or all Jews are greedy or all Asians are smart) become intertwined with the economic conditions of the times. When that happens, these simple stereotypes - once used to provoke humor or create false distinctions between individuals or groups - evolve into racial slurs or what Haig A. Bosmajian, professor of linguistics at the University of Washington, describes as "the language of oppression."

This language, Bosmajian suggests, allows one group to redefine another group "so they will be looked upon as creatures warranting separation, suppression, and even eradication."

Two of the more extreme examples of this redefinition led to the enslavement and even death of Africans in America and the slaughter of Jews in Nazi Germany.

Bosmajian points out that a sophisticated public-relations campaign, which depicted Africans as inferior to whites and closer to apes, preceded the slave trade.

"Having defined blacks as uncivilized, heathens, barbarians, apes and animals, it was an easy step to oppress them into slavery . . . As `animals' they (Africans) could be transported to the colonies like animals," Bosmajian wrote in his acclaimed book, "The Language of Oppression."

Nonetheless, the language of the past - though a painful reminder of the discrimination a group has endured - is often considered less threatening when it reappears in the present, experts say. Some people - even groups who have been victims of oppressive language - believe historical references to demeaning words are largely harmless.

Linguists suggest that's because many people believe the social and political conditions from which racial slurs emerged no longer exist, or exist only marginally.

Moreover, in American society, where language constantly moves from colloquialism to slang, and from slang to slang subsets, some people find it difficult to distinguish racial slurring from simple contemporary phraseology. That's why it is common to hear people say "it's only a word" when racial slurs re-emerge in the popular vernacular, linguists say.

Indeed, there are instances when groups who have been victimized by racial slurs use the same demeaning language among and against each other. Though this perpetuates historical stereotypes and generalizations, members of that group still might not feel compelled to consciously select other words to "define" themselves.

"A lot of politically nondominant groups have explicitly attempted to take back words that the larger community had stigmatized," says Lakoff. "The argument is that when the group that has been stigmatized uses a slur, it gives them back the right to control the language."

That also happens with other types of stigmatizing language.

Among women, for example, "chick" or "broad" - originally imposed upon women by men, and now deemed demeaning when arbitrarily used by men to describe women - are sometimes casually used when women refer to each other.

Similarly, some members of the gay community have started using stigmatizing language - phrases or words that others used to define them - to refer to themselves. And among African Americans, racial slurs used to define their ancestors during slavery have often been used intra-racially. Rap artists use the words frequently. In almost each instance, those who believe demeaning words should be perpetuated suggest that they are "redefining" or "demystifying" the negative history associated with the words.

But is it really possible to "redefine" a racial slur? "When others outside the group use it, the word is not demystified - it's an insult," Bosmajian said. "And when you think about it, what slur has ever really been demystified? Can anyone think of any racial slur that has been redefined to mean something positive? I can't think of any."

Dr. Alvin Poussaint, professor of psychiatry at Harvard University, echoes Bosmajian's view - and even takes it one step further. He believes attempts to "demystify" or "redefine" racial slurs are psychologically impossible, and points to African Americans' use of the N-word to illustrate his point.

"The same people who say they are using it positively may later in the day be in a confrontation with another black person and use it in a very negative way," Poussaint says.

Poussaint suggests that the use of racial slurs intra-racially perpetuates within the group all of its negative history and, on some levels, is a form of self-hatred.

He adds that intra-racial references to racial slurs have another effect: They make the group or groups originally responsible for creating stigmatizing language feel that the demeaning historical aspects of the words were, and still are, valid.

"Right beneath the surface is all the negative, derogatory connotations," Poussaint says. "No one can totally divorce themselves from what a racial slur means in the larger society."

Still, many people dismiss the present use of racial slurs as contemporary aberrations. Yet history suggests that racial slurs are not static, but fluid, and that they emerge, submerge and re-emerge in society.

Author Thomas Friedmann provides the clearest example in an essay titled "Heard Any Good Jews Lately?" He demonstrates how the Nazis resorted to negative metaphors and slurs that reformist Martin Luther had used centuries earlier to justify the expulsion of Jews from Germany.

In 1895, more than three and a half centuries after Luther had referred to Jews with derogatory language, a deputy in the German Reichstag adopted the same derogatory and metaphorical language to describe Jews. He called them "parasites" and "cholera germs," Friedmann wrote.

It didn't stop there. During the 1930s and early '40s, Adolf Hitler and his Nazi propagandists adopted the same or similar language to describe Jews.

"They continued to disseminate the notion that Jews were a lower species of life, designating them `vermin,' `lice' and `bacilli,' " Friedmann wrote.

Indeed, the Nazis' "administrative apparatus" - in capturing the spirit of the dehumanizing metaphors - took the propaganda to a literal stage: They requested that "manufacturers of insecticides produce another delousing agent."

That agent, Zyklon B, was later used to "exterminate" millions of Jews.

Clearly, experts say, racial slurs have the potential to transform entire societies by metaphorically reducing millions of people to objects or lower life forms while creating social, psychological and physical hardships.

To combat those prospects, linguists offer the following advice: Beware of the rise of stereotypes.

"We can't just assume that because our society has changed over the last 100 years that everything is OK," Sue warned.