On ‘R-words’ that the media shouldn’t (or maybe should) say

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Protesters march in Minneapolis in November 2014 to protest the name of the Washington football team. (Photo: Fibonacci Blue, via Flickr/Creative Commons)

Protesters march in Minneapolis in November 2014 to protest the name of the Washington football team. (Photo: Fibonacci Blue, via Flickr/Creative Commons)

This commentary is adapted from a segment on The Pub, Current’s weekly podcast about public media.

I had a beer with my friend Chris Tsavatewa the other day, and he said, “I want to talk to you about the R-word.” In particular, NPR’s use of the “R-word.”

Which R-word? The racist name of Washington’s NFL team.

Tsavatewa is Hopi, he grew up on reservation, and he is one of the people who bombarded NPR last year with emails and tweets imploring the network to stop saying the R-word. NPR doesn’t do a lot of sports reporting, of course. But the Washington football team was in public radio’s traditional coverage area because of the growing controversy over its name.

“I don’t have a problem with ‘Braves’ or teams [like] ‘the Seminoles,’ ” Tsavatewa told me. “Most of us don’t, because those are historical references and homages. But a term that’s flagrantly racist? We can’t get away with calling [teams] the other words. We would never call a team ‘the Kikes,’ or ‘the Gooks,’ or ‘the Yellowskins.’ ”

For the better part of 2014, NPR news managers held the line defending their journalists’ use of the R-word. It may be offensive, they argued, but that is what the team is called, and if NPR were to start calling them “Washington’s NFL franchise” or something, the network would stop covering the story and become part of the story.

NPR would be rendering judgment on whether the word is OK, and that is not the network’s role, or so the argument went.

Perfectly sound logic, but you wouldn’t call a team “the Washington N—ers” on the air, even if that were its name. In October, NPR finally relented and said the network would indeed start trying to avoid the use of the R-word in most cases.

Tsavatewa was quite glad that NPR came out on what he and I both viewed as the right side of the issue. But he thinks that, in waiting so long, the network missed an opportunity to move the needle on this — to assert a new social norm that says the R-word is not appropriate in polite conversation, no more so than the N-word.

“The failure of [NPR] to make a decision about their own reporting style, I think, directly influenced the momentum of where that whole story was going,” Tsavatewa said. “It was at this crescendo, and I think the National Congress of American Indians and tons and tons of interest groups were poised for an institution [such as NPR] to change its practices.”

“And they didn’t. And then it plummeted. The story dies in the summer,” he said.

Now, Tsavatewa is not just any NPR critic. Such people are a dime a dozen. They hyperventilate over some amazingly silly things, and NPR cannot pay attention to all of them, nor should it. No, Tsavatewa is actually one of the biggest NPR fanboys you’ll ever meet. He’s an obsessive listener, and he has been an absolute force in supporting our local member station in Macon, Ga., both with his wallet and his volunteer hours.

I asked him: How did it make you feel that an institution you support so much was so late to the party on the R-word?

“I felt, uh . . . embarrassed,” he said with a heavy sigh.

Ouch.

We all take sides, eventually

Why was Tsavatewa dredging up this whole drama a year later with me of all people? I’m a longtime public media guy, but I don’t work at NPR, and I’m certainly not in charge of its stylebook (these days that’s the always kind and thoughtful Mark Memmott).

Tsavatewa brought this up with me because he’s been listening to my podcast The Pub, where I’ve been talking for weeks about the media’s inescapable duty to take sides on things from time to time.

Every time we do a story about the TPP trade deal, we feel obligated to include proponents and opponents, right? Or at least, we should feel obligated. We’re not taking sides there.

But every time we do a story about LGBT people, do we include the perspective of someone who thinks the “gay lifestyle” is fundamentally illegitimate and evil? Even though many such people exist?

No, because we’ve decided that perspective is itself illegitimate. It’s not in the “sphere of legitimate controversy,” as the media scholar Daniel Hallin describes it. As stewards of the public discourse, it’s our job to arbitrate what is in-bounds and what is out-of-bounds.

Even using the term “LGBT” stakes out a position, because it lumps transgendered people in with gays and lesbians, to the chagrin of some gays and lesbians who don’t feel they have common cause with the trans community, and it leaves out other kinds of sexual minorities who feel neglected in these conversations. That’s why I prefer the term “sexual and gender minorities,” though I’m having trouble getting anybody to come along with me on that.

How we in the media talk about events affects those events. There’s no point in running from that reality.

Fellow journalists: After the Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide, how many of you ran your Facebook photo through that rainbow flag filter?

We could argue all day about whether you were violating your organizations’ ethics codes. You probably were. But what I cannot abide is anyone who says, “People at straight news organizations should never take sides on an issue.” That’s BS. We take sides all the time, often without even realizing it.

Nowhere is that fact more apparent than in our language, the words we use to describe things. NPR did eventually — after much prodding from people like Tsavatewa — take an implicit position on the controversy over the Washington football team’s name by determining that the name was so offensive it should not even be spoken by NPR journalists when avoidable.

The other R-word

A different friend of mine got in touch with me the other day complaining about yet another R-word — race. Andy Silver, an English professor at Mercer University, where I teach, tweeted at me, asking, “Why does the media use terms like race un-problematically?”

“I started thinking about how culture is real, and poverty is real, and oppression is real, and racism is real, but race is a fiction. It’s a 300-year-old fiction,” Silver told me in a later interview.

“In the 19th century, if you were Irish, you were considered a race,” he said. “But today, nobody would consider somebody who’s one-quarter, one-half Irish — nobody would say that person belongs to a different race. And I started thinking this idea, this concept which is as outmoded as phrenology — it is poisoning us. It’s time for us to take this 300-year-old garbage out and bury it somewhere.”

Silver points out that the media adjusts its language all the time to catch up with — and also popularize — our evolving understanding of reality. To go back to my prior example, so-called “impartial” media used to call sexual minorities “perverts” or “deviants.” But then people in academia started to say, “Maybe it’s not accurate to pathologize this behavior,” and they changed their language, which led the media to change its language, which led the general population to change its language.

And yet, Silver said, “This one word, race, has remained with us in our media for some reason, even though most scholars will tell you this is a fabrication emerging in the 18th century.”

“When you [in the media] use a word like race, you lend it credibility, you lend it weight, and you almost create the sense that it’s an accurate term, when we know that it lumps wildly different people together based upon the most superficial of notions.”

I think Silver makes many legitimate points. But here’s how I replied:

Just because something is a social construct doesn’t mean it isn’t real, I said. Race is very real, even though it has little to no grounding in biological reality. If you look a certain way, you will be treated differently. That’s a reality. On top of that, many people identify themselves with one race or another, so who am I to refuse to recognize their subjective identity?

“Race” may indeed be a misnomer to describe all of this, but I don’t know of a pithy, conversational alternative to name the differences in appearance exhibited by people of common ancestry and the attendant historical, cultural and socioeconomic baggage. When in doubt, I just try to call things what people actually call them, and people call it “race.”

All of that conversation made me pretty interested to see the new Race Reporting Guide put out this month by Race Forward, the Center for Racial Justice Innovation, a multiracial organization that, among other things, publishes the news site Color Lines. Nobody gets to be the final arbiter of the appropriateness of racial terminology, but this progressive and conscientious group has as much authority as anyone.

Race Forward’s advice could be seen as contradicting Silver’s very smart take. “Race still plays a defining role in a person’s life trajectory, experiences, and outcomes,” the guide’s introduction states.

Literally, tip number one is: “Be explicit about race.”

“Use racial and ethnic identification when it is pertinent to a story,” though the guide goes on to say you should use those identifiers “fairly (across all racial categories, including identifying persons as ‘White’) and appropriately (without relying on stereotypes).”

“Use consistent terms for racial and ethnic groups that are descriptive and accurate, rather than reductive,” the guide also states.

Wait, aren’t those instructions contradictory? Racial identifiers are inherently reductive, right? Well, the Race Forward guide actually names the preferred categories.

Quiz time, get our your No. 2 pencils

Want to quiz yourself? OK, should you say “American Indian” or “Native American?”

Trick question. This guide says both are appropriate. Tsavatewa, my friend from earlier, calls himself “Indian,” even though that is, historically speaking, the very definition of a misnomer.

Race Forward also sanctions “Asian American / Pacific Islander (AAPI),” despite the fact that it lumps about half of the world’s population into one label. Labels suck, but I suppose we need to use them sometimes.

Here’s another quiz. Should you say “black” or “African American”?

Sorry, it was another trick question. The guide says both are OK, but with this caveat: “[These] terms are not necessarily interchangeable, as many Black people in immigrant communities do not call themselves African American.” (Note that Race Forward chooses to capitalize “black” and “white” in contrast to Associated Press style, which I’m currently following.)

Since not all black people call themselves African American, I favor “black” because I think it’s more inclusive. But as an aside, some students of ours at Mercer recently interviewed a highly educated middle-aged woman in Macon who said she identifies as “Negro.” It happens.

Another quiz, and I promise this one isn’t a trick question. Are you supposed to say “Latino” or “Hispanic”?

The rule in this guide is: “[Use] Latino rather than Hispanic,” because “the term ‘Latino’ is preferred as less derivative of colonial lineage.” There is one big exception: “Except when data sources specifically use ‘Hispanic.’ ” And this leads to the next tip: “Note the limitations of data sets you use.”

Sure, people get to choose how they identify on the Census form, but they don’t get to choose the categories, and they might not agree with them. So if you’re talking about Census data, that’s OK, but you have to make it clear where the data is coming from and explain the ways in which it might be limited.

Last one — again, not a trick question. In the event that you need to describe all nonwhite people collectively, should you call them “minorities,” or “people of color”?

The authors of this guide don’t like “minorities” because it describes a demographic status that is fluid and rapidly changing. The type of people we might describe as minorities aren’t minorities everywhere in this country, and whites will likely lose their nationwide majority status in about 30 years. “Minority,” the guide says, is also marginalizing in a way that just isn’t appropriate.

So “people of color” it is, not to be confused with “colored people.” That’s pejorative. Why? Seriously, why? “People of color” is nothing more than a syntactic reshuffling of “colored people.” They literally mean the same thing.

The answer, of course, is that one has historically been used pejoratively and one has not. There’s no particular reason why, it just is. And why am I comfortable writing “colored people” in the abstract in an article about racial terminology, when I’m not comfortable writing out the N-word, even in the abstract?

Because “colored people” isn’t as bad as the N-word. How do I know? I guess I just know. These things are really tricky. There is no hard line.

But as a member of the media, it’s my job to make these judgment calls. It’s my job to decide that the Washington football team’s name isn’t appropriate to say at all. It’s my job to decide that gay people are “gay people,” not “deviants.”

We all have to take sides on these issues, eventually. So I say, rather than putting our energy into avoiding taking sides until the last second when holding out becomes untenable, let’s put that energy into picking the right side.

This leads me to an important question: What’s the next “R-word”? What’s the next thing we say on the air right now that our children will be amazed and dismayed to know we ever said out loud? Let’s think about this so that maybe we can get ahead on the next one and not be late, the way NPR was on the R-word.

What’s the next one? Is it “race,” as Silver argues, or is it something else? You tell me, in the comments or at adam@current.org.

Adam Ragusea hosts Current’s weekly podcast The Pub and is a journalist in residence and visiting assistant professor at Mercer University’s Center for Collaborative Journalism.

  • Aaron Read

    I don’t think this argument will ever really be decided. The whole colored people / people of color was lampooned by Bloom County back in 1988…meaning the debate had been around long enough that people felt safe reading about it in the Sunday comics (not a trivial distinction) almost thirty years ago.

  • Aaron Read

    FWIW, I don’t like the “I guess I just know” concept very much, even though I understand completely where it comes from. Personally I think that if you’re not of the race/gender/identity in question yourself, then you probably should assume that you don’t know…because for most of us, we likely don’t. Better to simply ask someone, or better still, several someones, of that grouping and see what they prefer. While far from perfect, it does seem a lot fairer to me.

  • Mason Gibb

    You write out the full slurs your friend Tsavatewa uses for Asians and Jews. Did your friend use the word “nigger”, and you just decided not to quote him? If you are too sensitive to use the words “nigger” or “redskin”, how can you justify writing “gook” or “Yellowskin”? From what I can tell, this article would have been essentially the same without repeating any particular slur. It also would have been the same if ever slur was written out in full.
    If you’re going to have a frank discussion about race, for god’s sakes be consistent about it. Don’t say “R-word” and “N-word”, but then “gook”, “kike”, and “Yellowskin” all make the cut–it shows a strange disconnect with the subject.

    • Adam Ragusea

      That’s some slippery slope reasoning right there. 1) Not all slurs are created equal; 2) I don’t advocate eliminating offensive words from the lexicon, I advocate minimizing them. I typed “R-word” and “N-word” because that did the job, you knew what words I was talking about.

      • Mason Gibb

        From the photos of the Current staff on the main page, perhaps it is necessary to talk to some Asian-Americans and not just Native Americans. Or maybe run the Jewish slur by the ADL. Let them know that the R-word and the N-word are so taboo their use should be minimized, but you feel that the slurs against their groups are just not equally offensive, that it would be preferable to literally spell out those slurs.
        Show consistency, that’s all I’m saying. You obviously thought your Native American friend had a point on the usage of offensive language, and took it upon yourself to abbreviate two particular slurs. I really don’t understand how you can abbreviate the R-word, but use ‘.the Y-word’…It is the same slur, just swapping out a color. Isn’t this inconsistent?

        • Adam Ragusea

          1) I’m not Current staff. Outside contributor.

          2) I’m more inclined to print offensive language in the form of a quote than in my own voice, because I think the person with the byline is rightly held to a different standard.

          3) Whether it’s in a quote or in the writer’s voice, I still prefer to abbreviate or star-out key letters on the most offensive language, but only if I don’t have to sacrifice intelligibility. R-word and N-word worked here because there were plenty of context clues telling you what I meant. I’m not sure if there were sufficient clues for the other words.

          4) This is gonna be an inexact science. There will not be a hard line that you can apply consistently. You wouldn’t purge a word from the lexicon just because one person finds it offensive, right? How about two people, though? Two hundred? Two million? How many? You can’t make hard rule, it’s gotta be a judgment call. Feel free to tell me I made the wrong call, but it’s dumb to criticize me for being inconsistent. Consistency is impossible with something so inherently imprecise and subjective.

          5) In this case, part of the reason I didn’t spell out the R-word is that this was a story that began with a guy talking about how much the R-word hurts him. I was inclined to show him particular deference in the context of this piece, though I would not have done so if I thought it would come at the expense of intelligibility. You’ll note that in the podcast version of this piece, I did spell it out (in the form of an NPR quote) because the listeners didn’t have the link and the picture to help them out.

          • Mason Gibb

            Just to let you know, you name and photo are listed as “Current Staff” on the main page.