In response to my post on The “R” Word, some people expressed that a comparison of the “R” word to the “N” word is unfair. After all, as one person stated, “the ‘R’ word has to be earned.” When I pointed out that anybody can call anybody a racist, true or not, they responded “If that label is directed at someone who isn’t a racist, I’d argue that the word has no power at all. Sticks and stones and all that…” But doesn’t “sticks and stones and all that” apply to the “N” word as well?
I’m not defending the use of the “N” word. Nobody I know uses that word. I used to know people who used it regularly. They were black, so it was considered OK. I’m not saying there are no white people who use it. I know there are. I just don’t associate with them.
However, the “R” word is becoming so commonplace that it will eventually become meaningless. What prompted me to write The ‘R’ Word was someone who posted on my favorite local forum a couple of months ago:
“Many people are determined to hate Senator Barack Obama. But, c’mon, let’s just be honest for a change… It all has to do with the color of his skin and his self confidence.”
Wow, that’s some kind of “honesty.” The implication is that anybody who doesn’t like her candidate must be a racist, just because her candidate is black. That really got me to thinking. Since when is it racist to disagree with a black person? The term “racist” used to be reserved for true bigots, like the KKK or the Aryan Nations, — really despicable people. Now, anybody can qualify for that previously heinous label just by not supporting Obama.
When I was growing up, calling someone a racist was one of the worst things you could say about them. It had the same visceral impact as calling someone a child molester. And, like that other accusation, just the suggestion of it is enough to plant an enduring suspicion, even in the minds of those who are too “polite” to say anything, leaving the target no way to defend themselves without appearing to beg the question. Even without any justification, many people implicitly believe “where there’s smoke, there’s fire.”
Despite its recent dilution, the word still has incredible power. Today, the mere implication of racism can put a person’s job in jeopardy. Corporations are very sensitive to the potential for lawsuits by members of protected categories who allege the reason they didn’t get the promotion they wanted was because of racism or sexism. Is it true in some cases? Of course. But, in most cases, whether it’s true or not isn’t likely to ever be investigated. Corporations can’t afford to take the risk, so any suspicion of racism or sexism, justified or not, can derail a person from the management track and send their career south. The victim is never confronted with the accusation and doesn’t know what hit them, because it’s easier for management to just avoid the issue.
The word is a powerful weapon. But perhaps its cutting edge will soon be dulled through misuse by the petulant and inept, who resort to name-calling when they run short on reason. Another possibility is that its overuse may create a self-fulfilling prophecy. People who are sick of spurious accusations and demands for political correctness may start identifying with the “R” word out of defiance, just as certain blacks have adopted the “N” word to refer to themselves. Will that be a good thing? I don’t think so. But I suspect we may be headed in that direction.