the national interest

Describing a Slur Is Not the Same As Using It

Photo: Oliver Morris/Getty Images

In 2019, New York Times reporter Donald McNeil Jr., working as a tour guide for high-school students traveling to Peru (a service apparently offered by the paper), got into an argument with several of them. The debate centered around whether one of the students’ classmates deserved to have been suspended over a video that surfaced of her, as a 12-year-old, saying the N-word. McNeil, according to a statement released by the Times, asked about the context of the word — was she rapping, or quoting a book title, or using the word as a slur?

McNeil’s distinction apparently made little headway with his interlocutors, who accused him of using the term himself. Two weeks ago, the Daily Beast reported on their allegations. At first, Times editor Dean Baquet argued that McNeil’s action was regrettable but that he deserved “another chance” to learn from the mistake. But after 150 Times staffers wrote to express their outrage, McNeil resigned.

Some journalists suggested McNeil, the Times’ lead narrative reporter on the coronavirus pandemic, was often prickly or difficult to work with. This is probably true. It is also consistent with a pattern of other politicized firings. James Bennet made a lot of enemies. When I reported on David Shor’s firing, I heard many whispers that there were other factors at work in his termination aside from the precipitating charges of racism. Most people who have employers have a list of credits and debits with their bosses, and one dramatic event may suddenly tip the balance to make them no longer worth keeping around.

In the absence of a full accounting of this episode, I can’t make any firm judgment about the merits of McNeil’s departure. For all I know, he could have been acting unprofessionally for years, and it took a few teens to force the Times to take action it should have taken years ago.

What I can analyze is a pair of concrete statements from the paper’s editor. In his first statement explaining his decision to retain McNeil, Baquet explained, “It did not appear to me that his intentions were hateful or malicious.” In his second statement explaining McNeil’s departure, Baquet wrote, “We do not tolerate racist language regardless of intent.”

First, a staffer’s intent in saying offensive words mattered. Now, intent does not matter. Describing the use of a slur is now, per Times policy, no better than using it. Given the institutional importance of the Times, this seems to be a watershed moment.

This episode raises a narrow point about language and a broader point about process. Begin with the language question.

Until very recently, the prevailing (if not unanimous) view was that mentioning a slur was an entirely different thing than using it. There was a boy in my school growing up who began subjecting me to regular anti-Semitic insults. Then at one point, he called me a kike. The word had an immediate, electric impact on me.

I am not equating the power of the word kike with that of the N-word, which has a uniquely deep and tragic history as a weapon of subjugation in American life. I am merely saying that I understand how being the target of a slur can provoke an instinctive response of fear and anger, unlike other unpleasant language we can more easily endure. And yet I’ve never considered the mere utterance of the word to be a provocation. I’ve heard and participated in plenty of discussions about the word kike. None of them has registered in the same category as being called the term.

Six years ago, Ta-Nehisi Coates made a similar point about the N-word: “When people claim that the word must necessarily mean the same thing, at all times, spoken by all people, one wonders whether they understand how the very words coming out of their mouth actually work.” Coates was specifically addressing the appropriation of the term by Black people — and not considering quoting or describing its use. But his emphasis on the primacy of context in interpreting the word seemed, at least to me, self-evident.

Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy addressed the point more directly in a letter to fellow professors last year. Kennedy’s letter distinguishes between “use” of the term and “vocalizing” it:

“I do not ‘use’ it in the sense in which “use” of the term is rightly condemned. I do not bandy it about gratuitously, much less to taunt, threaten, demean, or insult anyone. But I do quote the term out loud in an effort to drive home to audiences the pervasiveness of anti-black prejudice and, more specifically, the way in which this troublesome word has been an integral part of the soundtrack of American racism.

Those of us who share Kennedy’s view should be flexible about our position. The purpose of language is to communicate effectively. If your audience is traumatized by the vocalization of a word, that inhibits communication, and so you should find another word. There seems to be a generational split over vocalizing the N-word. If we are going to to change norms, people can find a way to adjust. (I’ve always felt hesitant to vocalize slurs against other groups simply because it is so easily misunderstood.)

But if we are going to decide to change our standards so that vocalizing a slur in any context is considered unacceptable, that doesn’t require us to erase the distinction between use and mention. You can decide that mentioning a slur is also unacceptable without going so far as to treat it as the same thing.

The Daily Beast, which first reported on the encounter, quotes a Times spokesperson reporting that it found, through its internal investigation, that McNeil “repeat[ed] a racist slur in the context of a conversation about racist language.”

The story’s reporting doesn’t challenge that description. Yet the headline charged that McNeil was accused of “using” the slur. Now, maybe the Daily Beast wants to implicitly take the side of students who see no important distinction between use and mention, but many readers older than, say, 30 will understand its headline to mean that McNeil was accused of calling somebody the N-word.

It would be one thing to decide that not only is it unacceptable to use a slur but it is also unacceptable to utter or mention in it any form. It is another thing to treat those two different actions as completely indistinguishable, as the Daily Beast appears to have done.

What’s even more troublesome is when authorities decide to apply the new norm retroactively. I know of a teacher who lost her job when a video surfaced on social media showing her reading the word to her class. She was reading from a well-regarded book written by a Black author about Jim Crow–era racism. The video was a decade old. And yet, when it came out last summer, when student activists in the wake of the George Floyd murder were looking to bring change to their immediate surroundings, she became the proximate target.

Last summer, after New York Times staffers claimed an op-ed by Tom Cotton put their lives in danger, the Times officially apologized for publishing it. The official line is that the column failed to meet its standards; i.e., Cotton alleged that antifa radicals had infiltrated some racial-justice protests (he was right) and that its tone was “needlessly harsh,” as if the
op-ed page had previously been devoid of harsh tones. Now it is applying a no-tolerance standard toward the vocalization of racist language, “regardless of intent.”

In both cases, the standard has been formulated in the face of pressure and applied retroactively against staffers who could not have known they existed.