the n-word

Unless It’s the N-Word, It’s Probably Not ‘Like the N-Word’

CNN anchor Chris Cuomo.
CNN anchor Chris Cuomo. Photo: Lloyd Bishop/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Fredo Corleone, as depicted in Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather films, is incompetent, envious, and ultimately traitorous with fatal results. His father leads a crime syndicate, his older brother is the virile and hot-tempered heir apparent, and his younger brother is the cunning and effective one who takes over, leaving Fredo — the black-sheep middle brother — to run the others’ errands and wallow in his own inadequacy. He’s an unflattering point of comparison for anyone. For CNN’s Chris Cuomo, the sting of being called “Fredo” is likely sharpened by its precise familial implications: His father is former New York governor Mario Cuomo, and his older brother is current governor Andrew Cuomo. There’s some disagreement over whether it’s a known ethnic slur, as Cuomo and CNN both claimed after a stranger used it against the 49-year-old anchor on Monday. Either way, equating a real-life Italian-American with a reviled one from popular culture courts bigotry, nakedly or tangentially. Cuomo was justified in taking offense — if not in threatening his injurer with violence.

Where Cuomo truly got derailed was in his claim that “Fredo” is “like the ‘N-word’ for us [Italian-Americans].” It’s worth noting up front that few words are actually like “n- - - - -.” Its etymology traces to when it was used to categorize enslaved black people and later expanded in its derogatory implications when racists maintained it as a pejorative after less-coarse terminology — “colored,” “Afro-American,” “black” — came into fashion. It survived primarily to degrade a people whose oppression in the U.S. was nigh unparalleled. Its modern uses include as a term of intraracial endearment, even as it heralds bigotry and possibly even violence when deployed interracially. This remains confusing for some who claim not to understand why it’s only acceptable for black people to say it. More confusing, perhaps, should be why so many have trouble applying basic standards of interpersonal conduct — like avoiding offensive words when referencing people you aren’t on intimate personal or communal terms with — to black people.

But Chris Cuomo, who has since apologized for the analogy, was participating in a broader trend plaguing modern America. It’s become somewhat common for white people who face personal injury to liken their degree of insult to black people being called “n- - - - -s.” The most flagrant examples include when someone like former Maine governor Paul LePage — who has called people of color “the enemy,” and complained about guys named “D-Money, Smoothie, Shifty” bringing drugs from New York and “[impregnating] a young white girl before they leave” — invokes the comparison while fending off charges of racism. “Deep down in my heart I know I am not a racist,” he told a state representative in an angry voice-mail in 2016. Being called a “racist,” LePage added, “it’s like calling a black man the N-word or a woman the C-word. It just absolutely knocked me off my feet.” The comparison echoes a broader tendency, particularly among conservatives, to suggest that being called racist is worse than racism itself. “One of the problems is, why it’s hard to have a conversation, there is nothing worse than being called a racist,” Kieran Lalor, a New York state assemblyman, told Fox News last year. “There is nothing worse for your career, there’s nothing worse for you as a person.”

Cuomo and LePage aren’t interchangeable in this regard, but both suffer from a mix of rhetorical carelessness, historical ignorance, and an inability to distinguish the wages of broad inequality from those of personal insult. These traits aren’t distributed equally between them; Cuomo at least has a cultural history of anti-Italian prejudice informing his outlook. (Though footage of his near altercation suggests the man he confronted was also part Italian.) But the fluidness with which both invoked “n- - - - -” to illustrate their hurt feelings suggests a logic whereby all slurs are hurtful and therefore somehow equivalent. This withers under scrutiny. The term “Fredo” connotes a weak link in a family when used pejoratively. The term “n- - - - -,” when used in similar fashion, connotes a slave, caste underling, or subhuman, kept down by a society where law and custom reproduce anti-black prejudice daily. Discourse equating the two is insulting and dishonest. Fortunately, the differences between them are not opaque or especially difficult to understand. Cuomo probably wasn’t thinking too deeply when he made the analogy on Monday and has since acknowledged that doing so was impolitic. But the lesson he learned can be extended beyond his immediate circumstances: Unless you’re black and being called a “n- - - - -,” the hurt you feel when getting slurred is probably not like being called a “n- - - - -.”

Unless It’s the N-Word, It’s Probably Not ‘Like the N-Word’