What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves - Benjamin K. Bergen (2016)
Chapter 10. The $100,000 Word
Kobe Bryant was the starting shooting guard for the Los Angeles Lakers from the time he was drafted straight out of high school in 1996 until he retired in 2016. Over those twenty years, he saw most everything the National Basketball Association (NBA) has to offer. Yet even he was still prone to emotional swings on the court. In a game against the San Antonio Spurs on April 12, 2011, Bryant was whistled for an offensive foul and then a technical foul. He demonstrably disagreed with the calls—as he came off the court, he punched a chair and threw a towel onto the ground. The producers of the live broadcast kept the cameras trained on the commotion, a fact he might not have been aware of when, from the bench, he yelled at referee Bennie Adams, “Bennie! Fucking faggot!” Analyst Steve Kerr immediately suggested to the producer on air, “You might want to take the camera off him right now, for the children watching from home.”1
Even for a twenty-year veteran like Bryant, sports are emotional. Beyond the familiar thrill and agony of, respectively, victory and defeat, athletes experience anxiety about performance, pain from injury, anger at officials’ decisions, relief after prevailing in a must-win situation, and so on. As we’ve already seen, profanity is a privileged conduit to emotion. Add to the mix the intensity, pressure, competition, and spontaneity of sports, and it’s really no surprise that athletes swear.
And they swear a lot. This probably wouldn’t stir up too much controversy if we were just dealing with enthusiastic fuck yeahs of victory and saturnine aw fucks of defeat. But we’re not. Oftentimes, as in Kobe Bryant’s case, the profanity belongs to the linguistic third rail of slurs. Fucking might not be hard to play off, but faggot is going to keep your publicist busy.
Now, to close out this particular episode, Bryant later apologized and explained that he had spoken “out of frustration during the game, period” and that “the words expressed do not reflect my feelings toward the gay and lesbian communities and were not meant to offend anyone.” And to his credit, he’s refashioned himself as an advocate for LGBTQ rights and respectful speech. For example, when Jason Collins came out as the NBA’s first openly gay player, Bryant had this to say:
I think him coming out was really brave. As his peers we have to support him, just rally around him and hopefully everybody else comes out and be themselves in who they are.2
And when a pair of Lakers fans used a slur on Twitter, he called them out (in an economical 131 characters):
Just letting you know @PacSmoove @pookeo9 that using “your gay” as a way to put someone down ain’t ok! #notcool delete that out ur vocab
But his contrition was a day late and a dollar short. Actually, to be precise, it was a tad more than a dollar short. The NBA decided the day after the incident on the court to levy a fine for use of “offensive and inexcusable” words. The bill they sent Bryant: $100,000.
Bryant is just one entry in a long list of basketball players punished for using slurs. In 2012, New York Nicks forward Amar’e Stoudemire was fined $50,000 for a tweet calling a fan a fag. In 2013 Roy Hibbert was fined $75,000 for using the expression no homo in a press conference. In 2015, Rajon Rondo was suspended for a game for calling a referee faggot. And so on. Simultaneously, the National Football League (NFL) has started penalizing players for slurs. The league’s officiating video, distributed to teams before the 2014-2015 season, stated, “The NFL will have ‘zero tolerance’ this season for players’ on-field use of racial slurs or abusive language relating to sexual orientation.”3 The penalty? Fifteen yards for the first infraction, as well as possible fines or other disciplinary action. San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick was caught in the dragnet during the second game of that initial season, when he was fined $11,000 for ostensibly using the word nigger on the field.a
The league eventually reduced the fine by half due to an absence of evidence that Kaepernick had actually uttered the slur: Sandritter, M. (October 15, 2014).
On the surface, leagues and teams champion these policies as ways to ensure sportsmanship and to create safe and respectful environments. A more cynical interpretation sees them bowing to the same pressures as other entertainment organizations, like broadcast television and the film industry, blanching the entertainment product to the point where no viewer can find anything in it to object to. Regardless of the impetus, the consequences to players’ pocketbooks are real, and the message is clear: no slurs tolerated here. And for all of sports leagues’ documented evils (baseball’s history of segregation,4 football’s suppression of head trauma research,5 basketball and football’s exploitation of unpaid “amateur” college athletes),6 the antislur campaign in play in the major North American sports leagues is at least one thing that no one could possibly object to.
Even if we accept that profanity in the aggregate doesn’t cause harm to children or adults, slurs seem like a different creature. They’re built to hurt. In this chapter, we’ll see how. But that doesn’t mean that banning them is the most productive approach. I’ll make the case below that even though slurs may cause harm, blanket policies outlawing them—like those adopted by the NBA and NFL and many other private and public organizations—can actually do more harm than good.
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Slur-banning policies may at first blush seem reasonable for compelling psychological and historical reasons. To begin with, people find slurs more offensive than any other class of words, including other profanity. We can see this clearly from Kristin Janschewitz’s data, discussed in Chapter 1.7 You might recall that people were asked a number of questions about taboo and nontaboo words. I categorized the taboo words according to the now familiar Holy, Fucking, Shit, Nigger Principle. Naturally, in doing so, I had to make some judgment calls. Is whore a slur or a sex-related word? (I classified it as a slur.) Does jism pertain to bodily effluvia or to sex? (I went with the latter.) But since these groupings are meant to give a general idea of how the language populates its profane vocabulary, let’s not get hung up on these questionable cases—they turn out not to make a difference for the big picture issue I want to extract. Look at what happens when you split profanity in this way. In the graph above, each word is a dot, and the mean offensiveness rating for each word is on the y-axis. So higher-up words are judged more profane on average.
Each dot represents an English word in one of the four major categories of profanity. Slurs are judged far more offensive than any other group.
As you can see, the offensiveness of the various words ranges broadly. There’s one single, lonely data point all the way on the top right, perched peerlessly at the zenith of offensiveness. That’s nigger. But although it’s an overall outlier, other slurs behave consistently with it. Directly below it is cunt, then fag, chink, and so on. The horizontal bars show averages by category, and you can see that on average slurs are judged more offensive than any other group by a full point or more. And this might actually understate how offensive slurs are. Some of the most offensive words in the other categories are arguably slurs—the list of most offensive Fucking words, starting at the top, are cocksucker and motherfucker.
But this demonstration probably just confirms what you already know. People find slurs offensive. For some slurs, this is nothing new: they were built to offend from the outset. It’s their reason for being. As far as we can tell, Ching-Chong is and always was a term of offense. Same with wetback, sand-nigger, camel-fucker, and so on. And just as there are typical sources from which profanity in general draws, particular semantic pathways lead to slurs.8A common one is physical characteristics believed to identify members of these groups. Sometimes these terms identify stereotyped skin color, like yellow or Redskin. Slurs can also identify body features, like snipdick, slant, slope, or thick-lips. They can identify ways people in a group are believed to sound (like Ching-Chong). They can come from animal words, like coon or bitch, and from stereotypical occupations, activities, clothing, or foods, like cotton-picker, towel-head, breeder, carpet-muncher, or cracker. Using words associated with stereotypical appearance or behavior is an effective way to dehumanize members of a group.
In other cases, otherwise neutral words have grown into slurs, not necessarily from original intent but due to the social contexts of their use. Even nigger wasn’t always the linguistic powder keg it now is. Nor were Chinaman or cripple. In the long history of these words, they’ve gone through changes, just as our attitudes toward language and toward members of minority groups have evolved. And they’ve followed a similar trajectory. It’s worth expanding on that a bit to see how words evolve into slurs.
Nigger originally derives from the Latin root nigr-, which just means “black.” Before the 1900s, it was the default way to refer to Americans who would come, through the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, to be referred to as colored, then black and African American. For example, nigger shows up in Mark Twain’s most lauded contribution to American literature, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, published in 1884. In case your memory is rusty, narrator Huck Finn recounts his escape from an abusive father in Missouri. Along the way, he befriends an escaped slave, Jim, and together they head for freedom in the North. Over the course of their adventure, the word nigger appears more than two hundred times—not as a slur but as a generic reference term.
Of course, even if the word itself was largely neutral in the nineteenth century, the context of its use (both in the book and in real life) was anything but. It accompanied people through centuries of enslavement and subjugation. As a consequence, for many people, it remains tainted by that legacy. As social attitudes changed, by the twentieth century nigger had started to gain a strong negative connotation.9 It soon gave way to colored and then black, Afro-American, and African American.
The stories of Chinaman and cripple are similar. Both originally referred to people neutrally. Chinaman was as benign as Englishman or Frenchman, which are still used without negative connotation. In fact, through much of the nineteenth century, Chinese Americans used it in positive contexts. For instance, in a letter about immigration policy to then California governor John Bigler, a Chinese American San Francisco restaurant owner proudly wrote, “Sir: I am a Chinaman, a republican, and a lover of free institutions.”10 Chinaman started to develop a negative connotation only around the turn of the twentieth century. And cripple, a noun used at least since the tenth century, yielded its place as the default term as late as the twentieth century, when handicapped, disabled, and their successors came into preferred use.
Again, just like nigger, Chinaman and cripple were default words for a time, but during that period people of Chinese descent and people with disabilities were in many cases treated as second-class humans. And the connotations that terms pick up over centuries of use are not easily shed. For example, the Fritz Pollard Alliance, an organization that promotes diversity in the NFL, has argued, “Whatever arguments people want to make about the ‘N-Word’ being benign, it reeks of hatred and oppression, and no matter the generation or the context, it simply cannot be cleansed of its taint.”11 It’s easy to find similar objections to Chinaman or cripple.
The different paths that slurs have taken don’t matter quite so much as what the words are now. And as we’ve seen, they’re offensive. So it makes sense that when they show up in public domains, like in professional sports, the response from the media, viewers, and league officials is stronger than for other, less offensive types of profanity. This offensiveness itself might be enough for leagues to implement slur bans. Professional sports survive off of the lifeblood of broadcasting contracts: if viewers are offended by what they see, they’ll tune out and take advertisers and lucrative television deals in their wake. And the leagues might not have dug any deeper than this.
But the argument for slur bans is actually even stronger. Although I doubt anyone in the league offices in question has read this research, there’s also some evidence, as we’ll see in a moment, that exposure to slurs causes psychological and social harm. Now, it turns out that the effects of slurs actually differ depending on whether the person exposed to them is a member of the slurred group or not (if you’re heterosexual, for example, the word faggot affects you differently than if you’re homosexual). But let’s wade into the reeds here a bit.
We know the most about how slurs affect people who are not members of the defamed group. Suppose you overhear slurs like nigger or faggot, and those terms do not refer to you. How does that change your feelings about the people those words refer to? Several studies have examined this question. One conducted in Italy had heterosexual participants perform a free-association task. Presented with a list of words, like the Italian equivalents of sun, American, and lion, participants had to come up with three related words for each. And the key manipulation was that the last prompt word on the list was either gay or faggot (since the study was conducted with Italian participants, the word wasn’t actually faggot but the Italian equivalent, frocio).12 After finishing this free-association task, participants performed a totally different task: they made a recommendation about how the city should spend money. They were told that the city council was deciding how to allocate funding to two distinct programs—one working toward AIDS-HIV prevention for “high-risk groups” and the other working on fertility issues in young couples. Their job was to decide how much of a fixed amount of money the city council should dedicate to each. The logic was that if gay and faggot had different effects on how the participants thought about themselves in relation to homosexual people, then this should affect their decisions to allocate funding toward a program more likely to help homosexuals (AIDS-HIV prevention for high-risk groups) or to one more obviously oriented toward heterosexuals (fertility). And that’s what they found. People originally given the word faggot to free-associate from were far less likely to allocate resources to the AIDS-HIV prevention program than those who free-associated on gay. In other words, exposure to a slur can bias people against sharing resources with members of the defamed group.
Exposure to a slur also affects how nonmembers of the defamed group think about members of the defamed group. One study again presented heterosexuals with neutral or derogatory group labels, gay or faggot, and then afterward asked them to select from a list words they associated with homosexuals and other words they associated with heterosexuals.13 The study was again conducted in Italy, and the list of words participants had to choose from included Italian words describing humans (like person, citizen, and hand) and others describing animals (like animal, instinct, and paw). And when the researchers tallied the results, they found that people picked more animal-related terms for the homosexual group and more human-related terms for the heterosexual group, but only after hearing the slur faggot and not the neutral group label gay. To make sure this was really about a slur directed at that group and not about derogatory terms in general, they included another condition in which people performed the same task after hearing the Italian equivalent of asshole, which is coglione. Unlike faggot, asshole did not lead to different apportionment of animal or human terms between the two groups. So this suggests that there’s something literally dehumanizing about slurs—something that makes outsiders think about defamed group members as though they have fewer human attributes.
Exposure to slurs even affects how you physically interact with members of the defamed group. A study at the University of Queensland in Australia14 subliminally presented one of three words to people by flashing it on a computer screen. It appeared forty times but much too briefly for the participants to consciously apprehend it. The three words were gay, faggot, and asshole, and each participant saw just one of them. Then they went into another room for a putative discussion with a student, Mark, about the situation of homosexuals at the university. Mark, they were told, was homosexual. Participants were directed to enter the room to wait for Mark and to prepare for the interview by setting up chairs for the two of them. But the researchers were less interested in the interview than where the participants placed the chairs—more specifically, the distance between them. Participants placed the chairs about four inches farther apart when they had been subliminally primed with faggot as compared with gay or asshole. A slur drove people to keep themselves physically farther away from members of the defamed group.
So there’s some evidence that exposure to slurs about others leads to biases against those people—financial, psychological, and physical. But what about the direct effects on the people that the slurs are about? What does faggot do to you if you’re homosexual? This is a more complicated story. The literature reveals that there’s been almost no work on this question. And that’s probably for ethical reasons. If you think that exposing people to slurs directed toward their group could cause them harm, then it’s hard to justify a study like that unless there’s substantial benefit to the participants or to society. There might well be; it’s just not the easiest case to make. So we know very little. And what little we do know shows that the effects of slurs on members of the defamed group don’t track with their impact on outsiders.
We can see this from another Italian study that used a “lexical decision” task. Lexical decision is a type of experiment in which you have to decide whether a string of letters that appears on a computer screen makes up a word in your language or not.15 The length of time it takes you to decide in the affirmative reveals the current state of various mental operations. For instance, people are known to respond faster to a word like dog when it follows a related word like puppy, which tells us that thinking about puppies activates thoughts about dogs and perhaps the word dog itself. In the study in question, some of the words participants saw were adjectives that describe culturally relevant, positive perceived aspects of homosexual males (like elegant and artistic); others described perceived negative aspects (like effeminate and emotional). The trick was that before each word, a neutral term like gay or a slur like faggot blinked on the screen so quickly (for only fifteen milliseconds) that the participant would only process it subliminally.
The researchers found that people’s speed in deciding whether a string was a word in Italian or not was influenced by whether they had unconsciously been exposed to the neutral term gay or the slur faggot. But whether the participants identified as homosexual or not determined how they were affected. When heterosexual participants subliminally saw faggot rather than gay, they were slower to decide that positive attributes of homosexuals like elegant and artistic were words of their language. This makes sense if you think that slurs, even processed subconsciously, bring up negative attributes and suppress positive attributes of the targeted group. You see faggot unconsciously, and then you see a positive attribute of homosexuals, and it takes you a little longer to read and understand that word because it’s inconsistent with the subconscious framing of homosexuals induced by faggot.
But homosexual participants were affected in a totally different way. Seeing faggot rather than gay slowed their recognition of the negative attributes, like effeminate and emotional. Indeed, by comparison, faggot made them think faster about positive aspects of their own group. This might seem surprising to you. It was to me when I read it. But here’s a possible explanation. When threatened by an external source, some people have a tendency to retrench within their group identity. And perhaps that was happening here. Subliminal exposure to a slur might have gotten homosexual participants’ backs up, leading them to feel stronger identification with their defamed group. They would thus evince more positive feelings about themselves and their membership in that particular group. That in turn would lead to faster reactions to positive adjectives describing homosexuals. But this is just one of several possible explanations. For instance, perhaps homosexual Italians have reappropriated the word frocio (“fag”), which has even developed a positive connotation. More on that later.
It’s important to be clear about what these data do and don’t mean. Subliminally presenting slurs to members of defamed groups might lead them to process positive in-group attributes faster. But that doesn’t mean that calling people by slurs is good for them. Homosexual people (like heterosexual people) deem slurs highly offensive. Remember that Janschewitz’s data has nigger, fag, and cunt at the very top of the list, and other studies find the same thing.16
Moreover, a single word presented in isolation may not have the same impact it can in context. There’s some circumstantial evidence that unlike other types of profanity, slurs, when deployed as part of bullying, may actually cause harm.17 A study in the Journal of Early Adolescence asked middle schoolers about their mental health and school experience twice—in seventh grade and then again in eighth grade. Researchers were interested in whether being called by slurs during that year correlated with changes in students’ well-being. So in eighth grade, they also asked the children how often they were called by homosexual slurs, such as homo, gay, and lesbo. The researchers found that the boys (interestingly, not the girls) who reported being subjected more frequently to homosexual slurs were also more likely to exhibit an increase between seventh and eighth grade in anxiety, depression, and personal distress, as well as a decrease in their sense of school belonging. We have to be careful how we interpret this correlational study (see the preceding chapter!), but at the very least, this result doesn’t suggest that slurs are good for children.
Finally, it’s possible that slurs could negatively affect in-group members in another way, known in the social psychology literature as “stereotype threat.” Members of particular groups are socially stereotyped as bad at certain things—for instance, there exist in the United States stereotypes about females and certain ethnic minorities being less proficient at math and science than their male or Caucasian peers.18 And in fact, educational psychologists have observed that members of these stereotyped groups do in fact perform worse on average in those particular areas, but only under certain conditions. When exposed beforehand to negative stereotype information about their gender or ethnic group—for instance, after being reminded that “women do not perform as well on this test as men do”—they perform significantly worse than when they hear positive information about their social group, like “women tend to be creative, and success on this exam depends on creativity.”19 While I don’t know of any direct evidence addressing the question, it’s reasonable to hypothesize that hearing a slur directed at you (bitch, nigger, wetback, and so on) creates a threatening environment that leads to poorer performance in those enterprises that your group is stereotyped as bad at.
So in a nutshell, not only are slurs judged offensive, but they also have demonstrable negative effects on how outsiders treat members of defamed groups. It’s not as clear that just hearing the words has direct negative effects on members of those same groups, even if it seems likely that they would. That’s more complicated.
And so, a preponderance of evidence shows that slurs offend people, evoke dehumanizing and discriminatory behavior toward members of defamed groups, and either were designed or evolved to insult and oppress. Considering these facts, it makes sense that people would call for an end to such words’ use. The Fritz Pollard Alliance writes, “While we understand and respect that different generations have different means of communicating, we cannot condone on any level the use of the ‘N’ word… . Simply put, from this day forward please choose to not use the ‘N’ word. Period!”20 The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, in a similar call, even held an elaborate funeral ceremony for the word in Detroit in 2007. A coffin with the word nigger printed on it was buried. Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who was in attendance, declared, “Good riddance. Die, N-word. We don’t want to see you around here no more.”21
With all the trouble that words like nigger and faggot cause, fining a millionaire athlete for using them probably doesn’t seem like the worst decision in the world.
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But here’s the problem. People don’t use these words in just one way. Yes, the terms serve to defame and insult, but they have other lives as well. There’s been more linguistic analysis of nigger than any other English slur, so let’s focus on it. The first clue that the word has different manifestations comes from the fact that it’s spelled variably: as either nigger or nigga. What’s the difference? There’s no question that nigger is a slur. But when it’s spelled nigga, a certain group of people use it differently. These people are mostly native speakers of a particular variety of English often called African American English (AAE). Speakers of this variety of English, most but not all of whom are African American, have adopted the word and run with it in ways that have largely (but arguably not entirely) liberated it from its defamatory connotations. As rapper Tupac Shakur explained to MTV reporter Tabitha Soren, “Niggers was the ones on the rope, hanging off the thing; niggas is the ones with gold ropes, hanging out at clubs.”22 Not every speaker of AAE would agree with this characterization, but it reflects the sense that there are two words here—one used to defame and suppress and another that’s an in-group term of positive self-identification.
It’s counterintuitive that the very people most injured by a defamatory word would adopt it as their own. But this same reappropriation of slurs has happened over and over again across the world and across denigrated groups. Instead of using offense at certain derogatory group labels as an impetus to try to decrease use of those terms, some people co-opt and recast them as badges of proud group membership. Some African Americans use nigga, just as some homosexuals use queer or faggot, and some women use bitch or slut. These reappropriators often feel they can mitigate a word’s power to offend or hurt by taking ownership of it.
There is a little evidence that this works. A 2013 research paper reported on ten studies designed to understand the ecology of slur reappropriation—who does it, when, and what effects it has.23 The most revealing experiments explored participants’ responses when someone else used a slur to describe him- or herself. Researchers randomly assigned people to read a newspaper article in which someone belonging to a stigmatized group was described with a slur, like queer in one experiment and bitch in another. In each experiment there were two conditions, which differed only in terms of who used the derogatory term. For half of the participants, an outsider was quoted as saying, “You’re queer” or “Your name is bitch,” to another individual. For the other half, the homosexual or female person in question was quoted as saying, respectively, “I’m queer” or “My name is bitch.” After reading their assigned version of the article, participants rated how negative the given word was, on a scale from 1 to 7. For queer, the difference was massive. Participants who read, “You’re queer,” rated queer as extremely offensive, with an average score of nearly 7 out of 7. But those who read, “I’m queer,” rated it about 4.5 in offensiveness. The bitch experiment produced the same type of effect, in the same direction, but wasn’t quite as pronounced. Ratings swung from 5.9 following other-labeling of bitch to 4.7 after self-labeling—still a significant difference.
The upshot is that when you observe people using a slur to describe their own group, that word seems less offensive to you, at least in the short term. But we don’t have any experimental evidence about potential longer-term effects of self-labeling on feelings about the slur—either among the people who self-label with it or outsiders.
We do know that once reappropriated, a slur expands and morphs into something nearly unrecognizable, at least linguistically. Nigger has changed a lot since it became nigga. Some really revealing data comes from a paper presented at the Linguistic Society of America conference in 2015. The researchers, who speak AAE, documented the use of nigga in contemporary English by analyzing 20,000 tweets containing the word.24 They found that nigga retains very little similarity to nigger.
For one thing—and I think many people will be familiar with this use—nigga serves as a generic noun that neutrally refers to usually male, usually African American people. I say “usually” because each of these generalizations has rampant counterexamples.25 For instance, it can occasionally refer to nonhumans. An attested example from the study is this tweet: “I adopted a cat and I love that nigga like a person.” It can also refer to people who are not African American, as in this tweet: “This white nigga just slapped his mom x_X.” So the word has migrated substantially. This generic, mostly human, mostly male use of nigga is roughly equivalent for many speakers of AAE to other generic terms, like guy or dude.
But here’s something you probably didn’t know. Nigga can actually behave like a pronoun too. As a refresher, pronouns include words like I, you, we, she, and they that can stand in for specific nouns. To a linguist, this is a huge deal. Languages don’t just add new pronouns willy-nilly. Just ask people militating for gender-neutral pronouns in English. Never heard of ze and zir? I’m not surprised. Pronouns are part of the grammatical core of a language and are appropriately resistant to change. But according to how it’s used on Twitter, nigga has crashed the pronoun party. Or more accurately, a nigga has. Consider examples like this one, again from a real tweet: “Spring got a nigga feelin myself.” We have to put on our grammarian hats to know that this is a special use of a nigga. Who does a nigga refer to? The hint comes from myself, which you’ll remember from Chapter 6 is a reflexive -self pronoun that tells us that a nigga absolutely has to be referring to me. So in this use a nigga appears to be acting like the first-person pronoun me. It can also act like I, as in the tweet “A nigga proud of myself.” Or it can be like my, as in “You read all a nigga’s tweets but you still don’t know me.” In all these cases, a nigga appears to be acting like a first person pronoun. It refers to the speaker.
To reiterate, these ways of using the word—as a generic noun or a pronoun—really only appear in certain varieties of English. And African Americans or people who culturally identify with African Americans happen to mostly speak those varieties. That fact will become important in a moment, so hang on to it. For now, let me just reiterate that nigger, having been appropriated by the very people it’s meant to denigrate, has assembled new uses that may be totally unknown to people who speak other varieties of English,26 like most national legislators or the owners of most professional American sports teams. The same process of reappropriation followed by changes in meaning and grammar has happened in the histories of faggot, slut, and other co-opted slurs. That’s point number one in the argument that banning slurs can be counterproductive.
The second point is that context matters. In certain contexts it’s socially acceptable to use slurs even if you don’t belong to the group they denigrate. One such context is in tightly knit groups of young people. It’s been most studied in groups of males but is also apparently present among females.27 As I was once a young person myself, I can personally attest that it’s not uncommon for the one Jew in the group (for instance) to be razzed as a kike, hebe, big-nose, Jesus-killer, snip-dick, and so on. A homosexual in the group might be addressed as fag, butt-dart, ass-spelunker, pillow-biter, or shit-pusher. Although in other contexts these words might elicit offense, among groups of close peers, a different dynamic is at play. On the insulter’s side, using a derogatory term highlights how close he is to the person he’s insulting. If he can get away with using a slur, even though he’s not a member of the group insulted by it, that shows that he must be very close in another way. At the same time, on the insultee’s side, allowing others status as an “honorary” Jew, homosexual, or whatever and permitting them to use slurs that would usually offend demonstrates how secure he is in the friendship.
When we’re talking about groups of young people, posturing is often also involved, and allowing others to insult you gives you two ways to exert your dominance. First, by allowing insults, you show your own self-confidence—you demonstrate that mere words don’t bother you. And second, you have the opportunity to engage in one-upmanship via verbal sparring. This can take place in an impromptu manner. Or it can be part of a ritual insult game, like “the dozens”—there are other names for it, like “snaps” or “signifying”—that’s performed mostly, but not exclusively, by young adult males, often in working-class or poor neighborhoods. Basically, participants spar verbally, insulting each other and the people and things the opponent values, like his relatives, especially close female relatives. The point is to do so in as creative, insulting, and specific a way as possible. For instance, a person playing the dozens might say Yo mama’s so fat, when she was diagnosed with a flesh-eating disease, the doctor gave her five years to live.b Verbal sparring is often filled with slurs—but again, these are licensed by the social environment. The goal is to simultaneously display verbal agility and a superior ability to stay cool under fire.c
There appears to be room at the bottom of this page for more yo mama jokes. You know, for the sake of science:
Yo mama’s so fat, she went to the zoo and the elephants started throwing her peanuts.
Yo mama’s so fat, her ass has its own congressman.
Yo mama’s so fat, she’s got smaller fat women orbiting around her.
Yo mama’s so fat, on Halloween she says, “Trick or meatloaf!”
Rap battles often have this same format, though in a more structured environment, and the practice has an early antecedent in the ancient practice of flyting—as in Conlee, J. (2004).
Within these particular communities of practice, slurs operate not as insults but as part of a socially licensed interaction. It’s similar to how actions taken on the battlefield (like shooting people) or, for that matter, the football field (tackling people) are socially permissible in those contexts but not elsewhere. And as a result, in some contexts slurs aren’t intended to offend and are not received as offensive. They can be poetic, creative, and even important to creating and reinforcing social relations.
So the upshot is this: Some slurs are used as much, if not more, by members of the groups they originally denigrated. These in-group members use the terms in ways largely divorced from their original negative connotation. In some contexts the use of slurs even reveals and reinforces group coherence and personal allegiances.
This brings us back to the issue of banning slurs and the consequences of doing so.
# $ % !
Many organizations representing the rights of specific groups advocate against anyone ever using terms perceived as pejorative. They reason, broadly, that using derogatory group labels can not only cause social tension but also disempower members of less powerful groups. This sentiment, translated into sports league policy, justifies punishments for using slurs—$100,000 for faggot, fifteen yards for nigger.
But even if well-meaning, a policy that legislates words, without taking into account how they’re used or by whom, runs the risk of causing disproportionate and unfair injury to the very people it aims to protect in the first place. This is most obvious with nigger because it’s used so much more frequently by African Americans and because it manifests in so many ways other than as a slur. As former NBA star and current analyst Charles Barkley put it, “I’m a black man… . I use the N-word. I will continue to use the N-word among my black friends and my white friends.”28 Many US athletes are African American (76 percent of NBA players and 66 percent of NFL players),29which means that many of them are also native speakers of AAE, the language variety in which nigga, as we’ve seen, acts as a common, inoffensive noun as well as a pronoun.
The consequence is clear. To ban nigger is to disproportionately silence and punish the very people the regulation ostensibly strives to protect. We’re going to protect you, the league office is saying, by cutting out part of your language. And if you use this particular first person pronoun, you’re going to be playing for free on Sunday, if we allow you to play at all.
I’m not the first person to observe that this policy is the linguistic equivalent of a frontal lobotomy. When asked about a possible ban on nigger, Stanford-educated Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman said, “It’s an atrocious idea… . It’s almost racist to me.”30 He pointed out, “It’s in the locker room and on the field at all times.” And “I hear it almost every series out there on the field.” Sherman speaks AAE. But if you were a league executive or a team owner who wasn’t a native speaker of that variety of English, this might not occur to you.
Now, to be clear, this is not a First Amendment issue. Sports leagues are private companies and can ban whatever they like. So the fact that the law views slurs in general as protected speech doesn’t matter—an employer can set its own policies. But I’m not making a legal argument here. I’m saying that if someone thinks banning words is a silver bullet that will eradicate racism, sexism, heterosexism, or any other offensive ism, with no downside, he or she is mistaken.
Nor am I arguing that the right policy approach is to legislate intent. No one wants to have to infer what someone really meant by a particular word—not referees in the moment or league executives after the fact. Was that nigger or nigga? Was it a slur or a pronoun? Do these two players like each other enough to legitimately use the term in a socially licensed way? Intent is essential in the courtroom, where it has to be established to determine whether a defendant has committed a crime. But intent is really hard to infer even in the legal setting and even with the full power of subpoenas, sworn testimony, and lengthy reflection. There’s no reason to think it would be feasible to impose a courtroom standard on the basketball court or that doing so would lead to fair or reasonable outcomes.
So what’s the most productive response? To do nothing? Let’s zoom out. I’ve reviewed some evidence that slurs are offensive and—unlike other kinds of profanity—can even plausibly do harm in certain contexts. But those same words have very different uses in other contexts, some of them positive, and sometimes among members of the very groups ostensibly harmed by those words in the first place. As a consequence, blanket bans or attempts to infer intent are probably more harmful than doing nothing at all to regulate language. I’ve made this argument with respect to sports leagues, but the same logic applies wherever similar conditions are met: in businesses, schools, or public spaces. The power that slurs have over our brains and bodies compels us to act. But reactive regulation isn’t the answer. The next chapter explores some alternatives.