Double standards exist all across American culture. Men are expected to appear less vulnerable than women, a city dweller using country slang is often viewed as a caricature, and mistakes made by children are more easily forgiven than those made by their parents. Similar double-standards exist between races, too. The United States has always fallen short in this area, as it is currently (though less than ever before). After the release of the recent story exposing Hunter Biden’s use of racial slurs, it could do us some good to reexamine the various social rules surrounding Americans’ contemporary use of slurs.
Academics justify the different language privileges held by different groups of people based on a strange branch of intersectional theory called “language reclamation.” During a Q&A, CNN writers wrote that that historically marginalized people use slurs because they have “reclaimed” them, and, in doing so, they have “taken the sting out of” them. This same logic motivated Simon Tam to fight a nearly seven-year-long battle to have his band name, “The Slants,” trademarked. Tam, a man of Asian descent, eventually won his case in front of the Supreme Court and said he did it all to “take ownership” of the slur. Feminists and LGBT activists have also been quick to hop on the bandwagon with movements such as “SlutWalk.”
Yet this strategy is clearly not working. If anything, the addition of this rule just makes it all the more offensive and outrageous when someone in one group uses a slur for another. People have grown more prone to be offended by racism in recent years, not less. Law professors have gone as far as to edit down and skip teaching major, albeit horrible, Supreme Court decisions such as Dred Scott and Plessy v. Ferguson in order to protect students’ sensibilities. The “sting” seems to have gotten worse. Furthermore, for all the Left’s advocacy for “equity,” this is a terribly inequitable social standard. Several groups are denied the option of reclamation based on the slurs used to describe them. Take Middle Easterners. A common slur used on online messaging boards to describe Middle Easterns is “sandn*****.” Are Arabs, Persians, and Kurds supposed to say something as ridiculous as “sandnigga” to reclaim the term?
These rules do more than make hateful terms more offensive. In a perverse way, they also serve to make the use of slurs more appealing to certain speakers. Due to the omnipresence of these words in American pop-culture (slurs find their way into everything, from stand-up routines and memes to music and slam poetry), people necessarily spend a decent amount of time internalizing them. This, plus the easy shock and clout points people can obtain from violating the rules motivates them to be offensive more often. Just read Hunter Biden’s lawyer’s response to him: “That just made me snarf my coffee.” Hunter Biden types like a rebellious teenager, looking to attain scandal points by violating social norms. Plenty of people do this; it is not unique to him.
There are better ways to deal with offensive language. In this vein, leftists could learn from the stereotypically anti-vulgarity Christian they are so prone to mock. The easiest way for words to leave a vernacular is by getting people to forget about them. So maybe the solution here is for all of us to choose to use fewer offensive words, whether they be slurs or other vulgarities. Younger readers may not even be aware of many of the slurs that were once commonly used for Korean and Jewish Americans because of how rarely they are used today.
It is a good thing that we have come to a consensus that white people such as Hunter Biden should avoid using racial slurs, with their incredibly ugly histories. But we shouldn’t be short-sighted. If we actually want to elevate human dignity, no one should use these words to describe a different person. Let’s face it: Tione Merritt “rhyming” the n-word with the n-word a whopping 15 times in one song is not empowering anyone.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this article misattributed statements from CNN to Neal Lester, a professor of English at Arizona State University who teaches a class on the n-word and who believes that word cannot be reclaimed. The article has been edited to clarify that the statements came from CNN, not Lester.