When do insensitive words destroy reputations?
It all depends.
Celebrity chef Paula Deen was dropped by her TV network, her publisher, and many of her corporate partners after she testified in a legal deposition that she used the N-word some 30 years ago. The deposition was made in a lawsuit against Deen and her brother over allegations of sexual and racial harassment.
Actor Alec Baldwin recently let loose with a barrage of homophobic crudities. Unlike Deen, Baldwin spewed his epithets in the present. He tweeted them publicly, along with threats of physical violence. So far he has avoided Paula Deen’s ignominious fate.
Does race determine whether a perceived slur is an actual slur?
Some blacks use the N-word in ways supposedly different from those of ill-intentioned white racists. Testimony revealed that the late Trayvon Martin had used the N-word in reference to George Zimmerman and had also referred to Zimmerman as a “creepy-ass cracker” who was following him.
Some members of the media have suggested that we should ignore such inflammatory words and instead focus on whether Zimmerman, who has been described as a “white Hispanic,” used coded racist language during his 911 call.
Actor Jamie Foxx offers nonstop racialist speech of the sort that a white counterpart would not dare. At the recent NAACP Image Awards (of all places), Foxx gushed: “Black people are the most talented people in the world.” Earlier, on Saturday Night Live
, Foxx had joked of his recent role in a Quentin Tarantino movie: “I kill all the white people in the movie. How great is that?”
Foxx has not suffered the fate of Paula Deen. He certainly has not incurred the odium accorded comedian Michael Richards, who crudely used the N-word in 2006 toward two African-American hecklers of his stand-up routine.
Yet whites at times seem exempt from any fallout over the slurring of blacks. Democratic Minnesota state representative Ryan Winkler recently tweeted of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’s vote to update the Voting Rights Act: “VRA majority is four accomplices to race discrimination and one Uncle Thomas.” Winkler’s implication was that four of the jurists were veritable racists, while Thomas was a sellout. After a meek apology, nothing much happened to Winkler.
Winkler’s “Uncle Thomas” racial slur was mild in comparison to the smear of Justice Thomas by MSNBC talking head and African-American professor Michael Eric Dyson, who made incendiary on-air comments invoking Hitler and the Holocaust.
Does profanity against women destroy celebrity careers? Apparently not.
TV talk-show host Bill Maher used two vulgar slang terms with reference to Sarah Palin, without any major consequences.
Those Palin slurs were mild in comparison to late-night television icon David Letterman’s crude riff that Palin’s then-14-year-old daughter had been impregnated by baseball star Alex Rodriguez.
In contrast, when talk-show host Rush Limbaugh demeaned activist Sandra Fluke as a “slut,” outrage followed. Sponsors were pressured to drop Limbaugh. Some did. Unlike the targeted Palin, Fluke became a national icon of popular feminist resistance.