Simply Slang, or a Culture of Disrespect? Profanity such as the N-word and the B-word are common in today's popular culture. Is there a role for them, or have they encouraged a disrespectful environment?
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Simply Slang, or a Culture of Disrespect?

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Simply Slang, or a Culture of Disrespect?

Simply Slang, or a Culture of Disrespect?

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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From the studios of NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Cohen.


And I'm Madeleine Brand.

Today we're focusing on the issue of race, respect and popular culture. Coming up, we'll hear from some young people about choosing to use or not use the N-word. And just a note to listeners, you'll hear language today that some of you may find offensive.

COHEN: It's the July issue of Ebony magazine that got us talking. It looks a little different than normal. No celebs on the cover, just one big question: who you calling a...

BRAND: Dot dot dot. The topic is the culture of disrespect, what is okay to say both in public and in private. The Reverend Al Sharpton gave a sermon at the Second Baptist Church here in Los Angeles recently and here's what he had to say.

Reverend AL SHARPTON (Civil Rights Activist): We went through struggle from slavery to reconstruction to years of civil rights struggle, to here we are 40 years later, and our clearest cry is the right to call ourselves niggers.

COHEN: I spoke with Ebony's senior editor, Sylvester Monroe, about the issues raised in the magazine.

Mr. SYLVESTER MONROE (Ebony Magazine): This is about language. This isn't about Don Imus. It's not about Michael Richards. It's about the language we use within our own community that is hurtful and that needs to be addressed within our community in a conversation. And so that was the idea behind this cover.

COHEN: You mention the community and Michael Richards, his use of the N-word, what happened with Don Imus. Is it just coincidence that these things are popping up or is there something bigger going on in our culture right now that we need to be looking at?

Mr. MONROE: Don Imus and Michael Richards are not new sort of phenomenons. I mean, there are people - C. Delores Tucker - she and Tipper Gore were out there on the forefront trying to deal with exactly this issue. Those two things sparked conversation about an old issue.

COHEN: This issue, the culture of disrespect, in the articles - in your magazine there are all sorts of explanations as to why the words that many people would find disrespectful are playing such a prominent role in music and culture. What's your explanation?

Mr. MONROE: It is what - it's what sells. And many of the - I mean, hip-hop artists have taken a bad rap on this - no pun intended - in that, yes, they are at the center of this, and you see them and you hear them. But - and yet there are hip-hop artists who do not use this kind of language, this kind of disrespectful language - the language of misogyny. And yet their stuff does not get played on the radio. It does not sell.

COHEN: In your magazine, you quote a number of people - there are musicians, there are producers and everyone kind of to a certain extent seems to be pointing their finger a little bit. You know, the rappers saying, look, I could not use these words, but then my music doesn't get played. And the consumers are saying, well, you know, we want to buy stuff, but there isn't the option. You know, whose fault is it? Where do you parcel out the responsibility?

Mr. MONROE: I don't know where to put the blame, really. I think there's enough blame to really go around. You know, I think artists can be more responsible. On the other hand, is it the responsibility of hip-hoppers out there or is it the responsibility of the people who run the companies?

COHEN: What role do you think Ebony has? I mean you feature artists on your cover, in your magazine, who use some of this language that some of your readers, I imagine, find disrespectful. Where do you draw the line?

Mr. MONROE: What we don't want to do is to point fingers of blame at anyone. But what I do think we want to do and what I hope we're beginning to do is to start to facilitate the conversation. I mean maybe we'll get people to change their minds. Maybe we'll get people to look at things from a different point of view. But I think that's where solutions begin.

It's where we get the hip-hop generation to understand how the civil rights generation really sees no way to anesthetized the N-word. What we have is two groups of people who I think want to be in the same space, but they can't get there because they don't - they're not hearing each other.

COHEN: There are so many different perspectives. I think it leaves many people who are outside of that community really struggling, not even knowing whether to use the word black or African-American. You know, what are those of us who are not blacks suppose to make of all of this?

Mr. MONROE: We have a story in this issue called "Membership Has Its Privileges." And the whole point is when Don Imus says, well, you know, you guys call each other by these names. Well, in our society today membership really does have its privileges. Is it right? I can't say, but for now, that's the way it is.

COHEN: Mr. Monroe, if I might ask you to take your editor hat off for a moment and ask you personally, where do you stand on the use of the N-word - is there a place for it at all?

Mr. MONROE: I'm a great history buff. I don't like the idea of banning anything because I think we are the sum total of who we are. African-Americans without slavery would not be who we are today. The N-word has shaped us in ways good and bad. Now, I know that's counter to what my magazine - what the editor, my boss, has proposed. But you ask me to take my editor hat off and I'm not speaking as a member - as a representative of Ebony magazine, but as an African-American, I think that there are responsible uses for that word.

COHEN: Do you ever use the word yourself?

Mr. MONROE: Never in public.

COHEN: But in private?

Mr. MONROE: In private? Yes.

COHEN: For what? When? When will be an instance?

Mr. MONROE: I'm 55 years old. That word has been around and I am very aware of its negative power and whatnot - and yet I see with the hip-hoppers, I see their point. I mean, it - for me that word rolls off my tongue when I'm in a private setting in my own home with an old dear friend and whatnot. We - the word comes - it comes as naturally as any other word. And yet, it's funny. It's like being bilingual. That word never comes to my mind when I'm in a public setting, in a professional setting, or in a mixed setting.

It is simply part of the multicultural kind of society I live in. And I would daresay that there are words like that in many cultures and ethnicities that are used just like that. I reserve the right to use that word in private. But I also understand the negative connotations of that word and the hurt (unintelligible) and therefore I would never use it in public. You've gotten me to say something on the air, on national radio here, that I normally would not say. But I want to be really honest about this.

COHEN: Sylvester Monroe, I appreciate your honesty and I appreciate you taking the time.

Mr. MONROE: Well, thank you.

COHEN: Sylvester Monroe is senior editor for Ebony Magazine.

Ms. FRANCES CALLIER (Comedian): We we're Frangela before there was a Brangelina...

Ms. ANGELA SHELTON (Comedian): That's right.

Ms. CALLIER: Before there was a TomKat.

Ms. SHELTON: That's right.

Ms. CALLIER: People would come up to us and be like, hi Frances Angela.

Ms. SHELTON: Hi Angela.

Ms. CALLIER: And they were confused.

Ms. SHELTON: They couldn't tell us apart.

Ms. CALLIER: Yeah.

Ms. SHELTON: Even though I'm about a foot taller than Frances. So we just got sick of people not knowing who is who. So just call us Frangela.

COHEN: Later in the program, we'll talk to the comedy duo known as Frangela about the culture of disrespect.

Ms. CALLIER: This is what I don't like about this debate. We're all smarter than this. We're are all social human beings who excel - unless we have some sort of (unintelligible) head injury or an actual mental disorder, you know how to act right. You know what to do when a cop pulls you over. You don't get out of your car and say, hey, bitch, you look like a ho, unless you're drunk and Mel Gibson.


Ms. CALLIER: But the rest of us know better.


Ms. CALLIER: Right?

Ms. SHELTON: Exactly.

Ms. CALLIER: So don't tell me you didn't know when you hung a monkey from the black person's cubicle that they were going to be upset.

Ms. SHELTON: Right.

Ms. CALLIER: You know, don't lie to yourself and the rest of us. That's where I get irritated. Because if we can all just admit, you know what you're doing. And sometimes maybe you slip up, you think you're a little tighter with some people than you are. I've had people throw a word out at me and I've had to pull them aside and say, you know, we aren't that cool.

Ms. SHELTON: Right.

Ms. CALLIER: You know, you might want to wait.

COHEN: Frangela later. But we wondered how young people feel about using the N-word, the B-word, or even the H-word. So we asked the folks at Youth Radio to pull together a conversation for us to listen in on. Though they started with a question about all of those words, their focus soon turned to one in particular, the N-word.

Ms. ALANA GERMANY (Correspondent, Youth Radio): I'm Alana Germany. I'm here with Ayesha Walker, who's 19, and Pendarvis Harsha(ph), who is also 19. The content and the usage of the B-word, the H-word have kind of opened up this for those of other ethnicities to be racist. And as soon they are confronted with anything, they blame it on black people, saying, oh well, they call each other that, you know, (unintelligible) whatever. So Kendarvis, what about you? Do you think that the smartest way to eliminate this would be to stop using the word?

Mr. PENDARVIS HARSHA (Youth Radio): One side of me wants to say don't use it, but it lends its power because it's out of common use - break glass in case of emergency and use this word...

Ms. GERMANY: Right.

Mr. HARSHA: ...and then that means that this word is the trump card; that's when everything stops, like, oh man, he used the unspeakable word.

Ms. GERMANY: Ayesha, you think it's realistic to try to stop using the word?

Ms. AYESHA WALKER (Youth Radio): No, it ain't realistic to stop. I mean, I'm not tripping off of nobody calling me a word because I'm certain of who I am. But then, like - I'm not going to try to stop nobody from using words because they're just words, like, I mean I say that but then at the same time I do feel weird when I hear somebody that's like, you know, not black or doesn't - that's not urban, use that word. Like Condoleezza Rice. If she called me the N-word, I would probably get offended.

Mr. HARSHA: She's not a part of the same culture as you, especially because she's in a different tax bracket, Ivy League school, you know, a whole bunch of things that she should steer clear of, of using that word or just being in that mind state.

But then again, there's people, people in the suburbs who just grew up listening to rap music. Now you've got whole generations of kids...

Ms. WALKER: Right.

Mr. HARSHA: ...who growing up listening to rap music, and they feel that they had that mind state because they have absorbed the culture through the music.

Ms. GERMANY: Kendarvis, what do you think the shift was that made it okay to say the N-word the way we say it now?

Mr. HARSHA: I don't know, man. If I said anything, I'd be lying to you, man. Because I - first thing that popped to my head was NWA - Niggers For Life. And that's when I was like, oh yeah, that's when my generation picked it up, because I know my sister had that album and I know I stole that album from her and I listened to it and that's where I got the word from.

And so I think it's recycled, man. I see my little nephew say it the other day, and I probably accidentally said it while I was on the phone with one of my friends. So we got to stop this somewhere, man. How you going to wipe it out from a whole generation of kids, man? You going to - I don't know, not allow it on playgrounds or something like that?

Ms. WALKER: That word has been magnified for what, for what? Why are we using this word? First of all, a whole bunch of black people, we're out there doing what? Selling drugs, we're out there killing each other, we're out there pimping, we're out there - just we're not together.

Like in my city - Richmond, California is like all these youngsters don't have nothing to do. We don't have nothing to do. Every time that I tried to get in some kind of program or something, I had to go outside of my city. I guess like the system is designed to keep us separated so we don't come together. And feel like once we start fighting against it, I'm still not going to stop using that word.

Ms. GERMANY: But what do you think has happen to the discussion and the use of the word in recent light of people like Michael Richards and Don Imus?

Mr. HARSHA: You say what does it do for the conversation or something like that? And it made me think, dang, what if the word nigger an industry, right? Y'all got to follow me on this one. so what if the word nigger was an industry, right? I had a stock in the stock market and like everyday in the Wall Street Journal you could see how the word nigger is doing, like it's up 10 points because Don Imus used it.

Oh, it's down 30 points because we had a march on Washington because people aren't even thinking about the word. It's obsolete for the day. And then what if you could see it through history? I wonder in like the 1920s when blacks were affluent how the word is being used, and then I wonder like in 1995, when the Death Row and Bad Boy was battling how it was doing. It's probably just a steady stock. I'd invest in it. Because I don't think it's going nowhere, man.

COHEN: That's Pendarvis Harsha. Our conversation with him, Alana Germany and Ayesha Walker was produced by Youth Radio.

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