Who Can Say What, and When?

Where's the line when it comes to free speech, and what happens if it's crossed?


May 18, 2007 — -- These days it seems no one can say the right thing. From Don Imus to Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., to Isaiah Washington … everyone has stuck their foot in their mouth. But why this sudden rash of taboo language? Where is that invisible line and what happens when someone crosses it? Who can say what in this country? And have we all just gotten too politically correct?

Onstage, provocative language about race has made comedians like Chris Rock famous. But now, even the comedy club is no longer a safe haven. Michael Richards of "Seinfeld" fame learned that during a very unfunny rant onstage at the Laugh Factory, a place where black comics have been saying the n-word for decades. The video of Richards' tirade is now infamous. Captured by a cell phone, Richards calls a group of hecklers the n-word over and over again, until some patrons leave the club in disgust.

Fellow comic D.L. Hughley said the n-word is "the atom bomb of words." He also points out that, sadly, its terrible history is homegrown. "It is an American invention. That word is as American as apple pie. It's baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and the n-word."

Michael Eric Dyson, author of "Debating Race" and a University of Pennsylvania professor, said that Richards' use of the word is deplorable. "The word when used by hateful white people was connected to a history of horrible behavior … lynching, stabbing, murder. So that word is always more than a word. Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will always kill us."

But is there a double standard? The n-word is heard publicly mostly in the music and other cultural aspects of African-American life. For more than a century, the word was owned almost exclusively by white people to inflict harm. But today, many African-Americans have tried to redefine the word and make it something positive inside their community. Is it fair for one group to be able to use the word, while others cannot? Dyson said yes. "Whether you agree with that strategy or not, that's a legitimate attempt to try to take the poison from a term, empty it out, and then circulate it as a term of endearment. You had it, you did your thing with it, let us do ours."

Some African-Americans go even further and say even members of their own community should stop using the word. The taboo surrounding the n-word is so strong that some politicians, like New York City Councilman Leroy Comrie, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, and Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., have proposed banning it. And recently Oprah Winfrey, along with hip-hop king Russell Simmons, called on rap artists to voluntarily limit their use of the word.

If the taboo extended only to the n-word or even other blatantly racist speech, like that hurled by Don Imus at the Rutgers women's basketball team, the rules may be easier to follow. But today the taboos about language are not so black and white; more accurately, they are different depending on whether you are black or white.

On the day Biden announced his presidential bid, it was what he said about fellow Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., that captured all the headlines. Biden referred to Obama as "the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean…" He was skewered by some in the press as a racist, but he said that was definitely not his intent. Some were confused -- why was the word "articulate," normally a compliment, now considered racist?

Dyson said he does not think Biden is racist, but said that the word "articulate" is a code word and it reminds him of something Martin Luther King Jr. said just before he was assassinated. "King said at the end of his life, 'Most Americans are unconscious racists,'" he said.

A few weeks after the Biden flap, Sidney Poitier appeared on an Oscar special with Winfrey. On that program, Poitier called fellow actor Jamie Foxx "articulate." Why did that comment, the same comment, not grab headlines? Dyson said it's different, that "[Poitier's] saying it as a proud black man about another black man. When Biden says it, as a white man, whether he wants to or not, what he's signifying is … a dominant white superior position, being able to assign who's articulate and who's not."

This double standard has left some people, especially white people, complaining that the rules about what you can say, where you can say it, and who you can say it to, have become confusing and unfair. Hughley said it's simple: "How about you call us equal. Equal would be fine."

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