On the Nature of Racial Slurs

On the Nature of Racial Slurs

Is it ever ok to use the so-called ‘N-word’ in a scholarly context? This year, a university tutor in Australia found out the hard way that the answer in our current political climate is probably no. Whilst teaching an undergraduate class on Ethnic Identity at Monash University, tutor Gary Lacey used the word ‘nigger’ numerous times whilst leading a classroom discussion on the history of the word.[1] Multiple students ended up complaining and Lacey was suspended, despite him using the opportunity to point out that he isn’t a racist and used it purely for the purposes of education, and that he has a Kenyan wife. An internal review later conducted by the overseeing department – the Australian Centre for Jewish Civilisation – found that the principle of academic freedom had been breached and later re-instated him, however such scenarios have occurred in universities across the West as of late[2] with varying consequences for the academic staff involved.

What gives a racially-based slur its power? And what gives the mere repetition of these words a license to target another person in such a way? The standard explanation of the nature of racial slurs one typically finds in academia focuses on the user, of the slur, namely that the power of a slur is derived from the racial prejudice or disrespect intended by them, which is then encoded into the word. The user is presumed to have a negative disposition towards a target and is using the slur to purposely denigrate or to assume a position of unwelcome superiority over others. Slurs are therefore used to generate a power-imbalance, and using the using the formula ‘Racism equals Prejudice plus Power’, a racist incident has thus occurred.

Yet the case of Gary Lacey and the countless others who have been subjected to similar controversies demonstrates this explanation to be lacking. The simple utterance of the word in a scholarly or educational context, absent from any malice or displays of prejudice, is apparently enough to suspend a university employee from their job. Being secretly recorded saying a racial slur in private for the sake of one’s own amusement, and then having the incriminating footage uploaded to social media, can easily result in employment termination. Reading aloud classic novels like Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or singing along to a rap song loaded with racial epithets is an ethical minefield for Whites in the current climate. Even mis-heard or mis-interpreted words can result in similarly dire consequences, as others have found out when using expressions like ‘tar-baby’ or ‘niggardly.’ Linguistics scholars contort themselves into all sorts of absurd positions to explain the phenomenon, theorising concepts such as an “invisibility of contempt”, that one can somehow be blind to your own contemptuous regard towards others when using a slur in a neutral sense.[3] However, this essay offers a far more cogent mechanism to explain this state of affairs and why it is that there is such a disparity between slurs used against Whites and those used against all other races.

The fact that lack of offensive or prejudicial intent towards others seemingly has no impact on a resulting accusation of racial prejudice from the use of a slur, points to the truth that the power of a racial slur is created not by the user of the slur, but instead by the receiver. Whether the receiver is the direct subject (the word or phrase was used directly towards them) or the indirect subject (the word or phrase was spoken without specific direction to the subject, but the subject nevertheless overheard it), a racial slur has power because the receiver has taken offense and has given it power. I posit that process is initiated by three triggers:

  1. Internalised Inferiority: The receiver of the slur, whether direct or indirect, has an internalised sense of inferiority vis-à-vis the person using the slur, or a wider group the user is a member of;
  2. Guilt Complex: The slur is able to tap into a sense of guilt within the receiver, either regarding their own behaviour or the behaviour of a group they are a member of; and
  3. Self-doubt: The receiver of the slur is worried that the slur could be true, or actually secretly believes it to be true.

If it is able to draw from one or more of these triggers, the slur is given power by the receiver and the racial insult (whether intended or not) will be successfully delivered. Alternatively, if no triggers occur, the internal state of the receiver is unchanged and the slur is not successful. Utterance of even the nastiest, most vile string of racial insults imaginable will have no effect unless a trigger has occurred. The above three triggers may also apply to class, age, sexuality, religious and sex-based slurs, however it is beyond the scope of discussion contained in this essay, nor do I explore the closely related phenomenon of taking offence to racial slurs on behalf of others.

Internalised Inferiority

The existence of trigger #1 is easily demonstrated when looking at the large catalogue of racial slurs that exist in the English language and the enormous discrepancy in power and consequence that exists between slurs used against Whites versus those used against non-Whites. Plenty of derogatory terms used for White people exist, usually referencing light skin tone, but none of them will generally arouse more than a mild sense of amusement or a raised eyebrow when used against the intended victim. ‘Whitey’, ‘mayo’, ‘vanilla’, or ‘gweilo’ have close to no insulting power, nor will any negative consequences from Whites collectively occur when they are utilised by non-Whites. Words like ‘nigger’, ‘chink’, ‘coon’, ‘spic’ or ‘kike’ are of course to varying degrees taboo unless uttered by those the slur applies to, and are spoken only with the knowledge that serious reprisal in some form or another can occur when used within earshot of others.

This discrepancy between “the West and the Rest” results largely due to Whites not being able to internally visualise themselves in an inferior position racially when confronted with a racially-based slur. The achievements of White civilisation stand so far above all others, that the inferiority of White people implied by a racial slur against Whites is absurd on the face of it. None of this is to say that all Whites have an ingrained sense of “White Supremacy” (defined as the belief that Whites should rule over others), only that Whites collectively don’t ascribe any negative or historically inferior connotations to their existence and achievements as Whites and thus take no offense to words that do nothing more than identify them as White, no matter how much hatred or prejudice the user pours into it. Put simply, Whites don’t think it’s a negative thing to be a ‘honkey’. This means that the marker of the truly self-hating White – as opposed to the performative one going along with the ideological climate in order to blend in – is someone that genuinely takes offense at such slurs and is truly convinced of the inferiority of White society or of its negative impact.

Trigger #3 is most commonly found in slurs that attack someone’s character or their physical features. Calling a wealthy and powerful man who is confident of his own abilities a ‘loser’ is likely to have no effect and cause no real offense. Calling an unemployed, unmarried, down-on-his-luck man a loser is almost guaranteed to tap into his self-doubt and his internal fear that he *is* actually a loser. Examples when it comes to race include the slur ‘monkey’ when applied to sub-Saharan blacks or the Chinese term ‘gweilo’ (literally meaning ghost) applied to Whites. The simple biological fact that members of the sub-Saharan race do share more physical parallels with great apes than other races — to the extent that AI  programs have accidentally identified pictures of blacks as primates — is enough to tap into the thought process that there may be some truth to the comparison that sits behind the slur. Meanwhile, no White person is genuinely worried that they physically resemble a mythical creature such as a ghost, and thus the slur is given no power (unless it is combined with trigger #1.)

White Guilt and its Uses

This leads us to the question, when do racial slurs against Whites actually work? The answer is primarily when they are not slurs against Whites as a whole, and directed instead towards a specific socio-economic class (‘redneck’, ‘chav’, ‘bogan’) or to an ethnic sub-category.[4] ‘Nazi’ is a slur to Germans as it taps into both German war guilt and the reality that many Germans do have ancestors that were members of the NSDAP or supporters of the party. Though less potent than they once were, ‘dago’, ‘greaser’ or ‘wog’ are slurs to those with Southern European ancestry who share a lingering sense of being second class citizens in an Anglo-Saxon country, never quite living up to the cultural standards WASPs expected them to assimilate into. The term WASP itself would otherwise be the perfect candidate for a taboo slur – an ethnic descriptor that is phonetically identical to the name of an unpleasant insect. Yet it is not, for no WASPs themselves can reasonably believe that WASPs were historically persecuted or disadvantaged in the history of the West.

The sense of internalised inferiority towards the user of a racial slur (trigger #1) is malleable and can change or be negated based on the circumstances in which the slur was uttered. A racial slur thrown by a group of physically intimidating Blacks towards a single White passer-by can result in a successful insult, as the position of external inferiority from being physically outnumbered overrules the natural internal disposition towards the slur if it was said in a neutral environment. The same effect can occur to a hypothetical lone White audience member singled out and abused whilst attending a Nation of Islam conference or a meeting of Aboriginal elders. The concept of an “N-word pass”, meaning that a Black person has given permission to a non-Black person to use the word, implies that no internalised inferiority exists within the former towards the latter (at least at that present moment in time). The vexing question of why the slur ‘nigger’ is non-derogatory when uttered intra-racially is easily accounted for by trigger #1, as the user and receiver are in a position of equality, at least racially, though such a slur can be successfully delivered when used across class lines, for example if a wealthy Black man uses it against his ghetto dwelling compatriots.

Perhaps the only racially-based slurs that currently seem to have any power against Whites as a whole (as opposed to inter-ethnic or situational-dependent slurs described above) are ones relating to guilt over colonisation or abuses that occurred during the colonial period to indigenous peoples – triggers #2 and #3. The slew of anti-White propaganda on the history of colonisation that Western youth are currently subjected to throughout their schooling years appears to be bearing fruit, as racial slurs based around colonisation have become common amongst the vanguard of the anti-White left, suggesting that this weakness has specifically been identified.

To conclude with a warning, the instinct to attack the use of such would-be racial slurs against Whites as a double-standard, even when no offense is taken, should be avoided. By pointing out your opposition to it, thus your susceptibility to the slur, you only serve to alert people of its power. Had leading black abolitionists in America like Hosea Easton not publicly drawn attention to the insulting perception of the word nigger in the early 1800s[5], would it have simply died a natural death, just like so many other antiquated terms used to describe a disliked outgroup eventually did? For a more contemporary example with a newly minted slur, the rapid rise in popularity of the slur ‘Karen’ used against White women was fuelled by the mass denials and anger over the inappropriate application of the word, signalling to others its viability as a slur.[6] The day that Whites start to take these slurs seriously is the day that Whites collectively no longer believe in their pre-eminence in world history. Mock the use of words like ‘colonizer’ and ignore and joke about the silly labels like ‘gammon’ being flung around, for if you stop laughing, that means it’s already too late.

[1] Precel, N & Gamble, J 2023, ‘Monash Uni teaching associate investigated for repeatedly using N-word in class’, March 2ndThe Age, retrieved from: https://www.theage.com.au/national/victoria/monash-uni-teaching-associate-investigated-for-repeatedly-using-n-word-in-class-20230302-p5covp.html

[2] A google web-search for ‘university professor suspended n-word’ results in a dozen such cases within the last 5 years alone.

[3] See Jeshion, R. 2018, ‘Chapter 4: Slurs, Dehumanization, and the Expression of Contempt’, in Sosa, D (ed.) Bad Words: Philosophical Perspectives on Slurs, Oxford University Press, p.77-107.

[4] Furthermore, compound slurs such as ‘White trash’ or ‘White devil’ are given power not by the reference to Whites, but by the inclusion of the additional insulting word.

[5] See: https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/style/longterm/books/chap1/nigger.htm

[6] The recent popularity of self-applying the words ‘goy’ and ‘goyim’ within the dissident right should also be approached carefully. Self-application of the words ‘nigger’ or ‘queer’ by their respective communities has so far failed to undercut the power of the words when used by the out-group.

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