Are All Slurs Created Equal? When Isaiah Washington, one of the stars of TV's Grey's Anatomy, used a homosexual slur to refer to a co-star, it caused a stir, but not the kind of anger that comedian Michael Richards generated with his verbal tirade of racial slurs. Guests look at the origins and power of insults.
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Are All Slurs Created Equal?

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Are All Slurs Created Equal?

Are All Slurs Created Equal?

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Over the past few months there's been rash of high-profile incidents in which celebrities have used or been accused of using offensive slurs.

First Mel Gibson, who blurted out a stream of anti-Semitic remarks to a traffic cop, then former "Seinfeld" cast member Michael Richards dropped the N-bomb several times at a black heckler at a comedy club. And most recently "Grey's Anatomy" star Isaiah Washington, an African-American, was accused of calling T.R. Knight, his gay co-star, the other F-word - the one that's meant to insult gay men.

Reaction to these words and these incidents largely depends on where you sit, the particular insult, who said it, and the history of the term. That said, probably everyone can agree that these pejoratives still wield a lot of power, whether they're used to offend or whether they're used to reclaim the word and subvert its meaning.

Later in the program advice communist Amy Dickinson joins us to talk about insults in the workplace. But first, the power and the politics of slurs. We want to hear from all colors and creeds on this. Who, if anyone, should use the N-word, the F-word or other insults and in what context? If you're black, Hispanic, Asian or from the LGBT community, do you ever use slurs among members of your own group? Why or why not?

Our number, 800-989-8255, that's 800-989-TALK. E-mail is talk@npr.org. And to avoid any further insult, we will not broadcast these words today. So we ask our callers to stick with F-word, N-word, and so forth.

We begin by turning to linguist John McWhorter, the author most recently of "Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America." He joins us from NPR's bureau in New York, and it's nice to have you have on TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. JOHN MCWHORTER (Author, Winning the Race Beyond the Crisis in Black America): Thanks.

CONAN: How do insults become insulting?

Mr. MCWHORTER: Well, there is always some thing or some things that a society considers taboo. And in the English language at first that was religious taboos. And so if you said zounds, that was a way of not actually saying by God's wounds. Then after that, especially in the 1800s and then on, there were sexual taboos. And so the reason that we say white and dark meat today is because it was once thought indelicate to possibly say anything about breasts or thighs because that's supposedly might lead you think about non-male people bodily parts.

And nowadays our taboo is race, and so there's a certain word that begins with N which is considered the most potent slur that one could possibly level. And if it slips out of somebody's mouth, it dominates the news cycle for three weeks. So it just depends on what aspect of living in society happens to have deemed taboo and therefore what strong words are considered to be.

CONAN: And it's curious that those earlier incidents of zounds and white meat and dark meat - I mean they sound silly. The current conversation, though, does not.

Mr. MCWHORTER: Well, it doesn't to us, but to be perfectly honest I'm quite sure that in probably in about a hundred years the fact that a comedian on an ancient and peculiar situation comedy that was shown on television saying a certain word that descendants of African slaves could take ill was considered something to talk deeply about and have talk shows about, it's just our current fetish. It's interesting to think that the word C - I don't have to spell it, I assume, it's a word for a female body part that begins with C and ends with t.

CONAN: And I think - all right.

Mr. MCWHORTER: And that used to be a medical word. It was in medical textbooks. This was before we had the sexual taboos. In the same way the words that we now refer to by euphemism will look rather trivial, and I assume that there will be other taboos.

CONAN: Well, deconstruct another terms for us though, the F-word?

Mr. MCWHORTER: Well, if were - are we talking about the one that's in the news cycle now or the one that (unintelligible)?

CONAN: Why do we call it the F-word as opposed to the F-bomb.

Mr. MCWHORTER: OK. Well, the F-word is something that goes way back. It's etymology. I assume we're talking about the one that ends with K is obscure but…

CONAN: Not that one. The other one, the one used to refer to gay men if you're calling him a bad man.

Mr. MCWHORTER: Oh, that one. OK. Right. OK. I get the feeling that we are on our way to making that one as prescribed as the N-word. And the fact that today the F-bomb, the F-word that we're talking about today can be tossed around rather casually I think is because there is still a remnant, even in a respectable discourse, of a sense that there's something vaguely ridiculous or perverted or irregular about homosexuality. And I think we've come a lot further than we were before, for example, Stonewall. But still there's a sense that homosexuality is up for being made fun of.

That seems to be changing as in the gay movement there seems to be an imitation of the civil rights movement in terms of rendering certain terms unfit for common discourse. We're at a transitional point. I think maybe in 20 years we will see less of that particular word being used in public or even private situation like the way often it is used now.

CONAN: And Mel Gibson, there was a sense among some Jews that the coverage of this incident focused more on Mel Gibson, his drunkenness and his celebrity, and less on the ugliness of his words.

Mr. MCWHORTER: Well, you know, what's interesting about the Gibson controversy was that, yes, it was all about him and we started engaging in all sorts of psychological speculations about him. What was interesting about that one though is that I'm not aware of many Jewish people who said that they were personally injured by what Gibson said. It seems the idea was that he's not supposed to say those things because it makes him a bad person, but not that there were Jews around the United States and around the world who were licking their wounds.

Whereas with the N-word one hears that the guys in the comedy club who heard Michael Richards were hurt by what he said, that seems to inform the fact that the N-word seems to be more potent than saying things about Jewish people. And in fact, the K-word, as applied to them, is technically archaic. I don't think that's a word of current English at this point. That's because we've moved to a different point when we talk about black people.

CONAN: Now as we get into the conversation about the N-word again. This is a word that has, in recent years, been used among African-Americans to refer to each other, still taboo for a white person to say it though.

Mr. MCWHORTER: Yeah, I think that ideally there's an idea that there's going to be a rule that white people aren't allowed to say it but black people are because we use it as a term of affection. But what I'm moved by is the fact that it's used as a term of affection in that way and then it's spreading to comedians and it's used in the movies among black people is really a way of taking the power out of the word. It's taking away the sting in the same way as, to an extent, gay men use the F-word in that way. But then it seems to me that we give the word its sting back by getting so excited when we hear someone say it often in context that really are not in the position to hurt anybody. But it has become a very complex word in our language.

CONAN: And a very complex conversation. If you'd like to join it, give us a call 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is talk@npr.org. And let's begin with Shawn, Shawn is calling from Lansing, Michigan.

SHAWN (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi.

SHAWN: How are you?

CONAN: Very well, thanks.

SHAWN: Excellent. My comment was I've always been of the opinion there are two kind of people that use these kind of words. There are the people that are born and raised around such harsh environments that they're kind of racist by being raised that way. Then there's people that used these words because they like to anger other people. They're just hateful people.

My question is - how come if people just stopped reacting so negatively, just like, oh, he used the N-word, big deal, wouldn't it just kind of lose it meaning throughout time, you know, wouldn't it just casually be dropped off our vocabulary?

CONAN: Zounds, John McWhorter.

Mr. MCWHORTER: Frankly, I completely agree and I imagine there are a lot of people who will think that I shouldn't agree. But yeah, for me, as far as that word goes, my visceral response is, OK, yeah, there's this ritual where we're supposed to get excited and pretend that, Oops, I'm sorry to say that we are hurt. But I actually think that no one can hurt me by calling me a little name, it would mean that I didn't like myself.

And my sense is that if anybody uses it, it's the last thing I'm going to think about. I've got a mortgage to pay. I've got hobbies. I've got this show to do. And for some reason it seems that the discourse generally is that we're supposed to feign this massive upset in which case of course, therefore, this weapon remains for any jerk to use when they want to stir up trouble or they want to get their name in the media. I really wish that we would just let the word go, then it couldn't be a taboo because no one would care.

SEAN: Exactly. My point.

CONAN: Sean, thanks very much.

SEAN: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's bring another voice into the conversation. Dan Savage writes the syndicated sex advice column "Savage Love," and he joins us now from the studios in Seattle of member station KXOT.

Dan, nice to have you back on the program.

Mr. DAN SAVAGE (Columnist, "Savage Love"): Dan, nice to be back on the show.

CONAN: And I wonder, the Isaiah Washington situation, is that a big deal in the gay community?

Mr. SAVAGE: Not - I mean, it seems to be a big deal in the gay community because we seem to be following a script now, as your other guest has stated. It was a discourse and it has a familiar feel to it. And we have to ramp up about Mel Gibson, then the replay with Michael Richards, and now we're going to have it again with Isaiah Washington.

Truth be told, in the gay community, the F-word is a word that many of us use all the time in reference to ourselves, to each other affectionately, and some of our straight friends. I have straight friends who use the F-word in reference to me, to my face, in a loving way, in a joking way, in a friendly combative way all the time.

And it seems to me that if we want - that is how - that points to the fact that intent makes a hate word hateful. And the word itself can be used affectionately, as we see with the N-word in the African-American community, or it can be used to wound. But the words themselves, really, they have no inherent power to damage or cut or hurt people.

You know, clearly Isaiah Washington used the word of conflict with his cast member, you know, to try to belittle him and demean him and hurt him, and it worked. You listened to T.R. Knight talk about it. He was hurt. But I don't think we can make the words taboo. And I don't think it will ever go away so long as we have to say things like the F-word on the radio instead of using the word itself because it keeps the word powerful.

And it should - it prevents us from ever showing how it is used in a non-hateful context, to actually help de-fang it for those moments where it is used hatefully.

CONAN: In the earlier days of your column, "Savage Love," you asked advice seekers to refer to you as, hey, F-word. Eventually, you decided to stop. What was that about?

Mr. SAVAGE: Well, it was about - in the early '90s, you know, the gay movement hasn't actually tried to maintain the taboo around these words. The gay movement in early '90s collectively decided - sort of the collective subconscious decided - that we would start using these words ourselves and be sort of loud and proud of them. We use queer. I hope I can say. Don't have to say the Q-word.

CONAN: OK.

Mr. SAVAGE: You know, we say queer pride parades now. We say queer film festivals now. That was an insult. And in the early '90s, a group called Queer Nation advanced to a platform of reclaiming these words and using them ourselves. So that if somebody said, queer or dyke, or F-word or sissy, or whatever, if it was a word that you used yourself, you could look at them and say and tell me something I don't know.

And the reclamation movement was really successful. I used it on the column because, you know, some gay people would write me letters and use it affectionately. Some straight people would write me letters and use it and model it as used by straight people as not a hate term. And some straight people would write me and use it trying to wound me ridiculously enough, as if I wasn't the one who gave him permission to use the word in the first place.

And I eventually took it off the column because the debate was over and Queer Nation won and these words had been de-fanged. And it's really sort of distressing for me to see this replay because of the Michael Richards and Mel Gibson thing. This is like re-empowering of the word to be a hate term again, because I don't think it's well placed.

CONAN: We're talking about the power and politics of slurs. 800-989-8255 if you'd like to join us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

The several recent incidents of celebrities using vulgar slurs refocused attention on the power that those terms have in our society. And that's our main focus this hour: the power and politics of slurs.

Our guests are John McWhorter, author of "Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America," also with us, Dan Savage. He's the editor of "The Stranger," a weekly paper in Seattle and the author of the syndicated advice column "Savage Love."

As always, we want to hear from you too. But again, we will not broadcast these words today to avoid further insult. We ask callers to stick with F-word, N-word and so forth. 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK, e-mail talk@npr.org.

And let's see if we can get a caller on the line. And this is Carlos, Carlos with us from Richmond, Virginia.

CARLOS (Caller): Yes. Hi, how are you?

CONAN: Very well, thank you.

CARLOS: I just wanted to say that I actually don't agree with the argument that the more you'd use it, you take away the sting from the word. If that were true, I don't think we'd get upset when someone actually uses it that's not black. And I am black. And I personally don't want anyone addressing me with the N-word. I don't like it. I don't like to be addressed by it. And it's actually kind of disheartening to me that we are the ones actually bringing it back in movies, music, when it's something that would have pretty much been relegated to racists and people with a lot of, you know, venom.

You hear it being used once again so much, I don't really think it takes the sting of it.

CONAN: John McWhorter, does the use of the word de-fang it or does it legitimize it?

Mr. MCWHORTER: Well, I think that the use of the word among a large segment of the black population as a term of affection definitely de-fangs it in terms of its use among black people. I mean black people are capable of using the word in a hateful way as well. I don't think that that really touches how it sounds when it comes from a white person.

But I do feel moved to say that the whole debate over the N-word is made complicated - to put it lightly, or to put it politely, but really a little futile to put it truthfully, if you asked me - in that we've got this situation where black people, especially young black men, use it about twice a minute affectionately.

There are now Hispanic and Filipino and Asian young men who are using the term with one another in the way that black men do. And there are whites who think of themselves as honorary black people - and I have no problem with that - who use the word as a term of affection too. So it's taking on that usage. It's used by this wide range of people in so many situations. Call it dynamic, is what social scientists would call it.

And then there's this idea that white people can't say it to black people when they mean it in a hateful way, and of course it's kind of squishy determining what hateful means. It's beginning to be a rather futile debate because it's so hard to police something that's so, shall we say, dynamic.

Mr. SAVAGE: Could I jump in with a question for Mr. McWhorter?

CONAN: Go ahead, Dan Savage.

Mr. SAVAGE: I'm just curious, like one of the things in the debate about the use of the N-word affectionately by large groups of people is that there's an alternate pronunciation that is officially the non-hateful version. The -ah ending instead of the -er ending. Could you comment on that?

Mr. MCWHORTER: That is certainly true. I mean, to actually pronounce the word the way it's written can be taken as more hateful than doing it in a way where it ends with A in writing. Nevertheless, you can also use the word where it ends with R in the affectionate way, like we can all picture in our heads a group of black people using the word. It doesn't have to have the A.

So you could say that the A-version is the one that is definitely affectionate. The -er version is the one that could be either one. But I think that to distinguish the two and decide that that little asterisk to pronunciation is what will do our policing for us is of course fraught.

CONAN: Is it important at this point to make the point that we're talking not about the black community or the gay community but that there are different viewpoints among them all?

Mr. MCWHORTER: Of course, that's definitely true. It's very fluid and it's very complex. And it's not as easy as it was in the old days. It's not that the word is used by the potbellied Southern cigar-chomping policeman when he pulls over a black person in a car and is also using the words boy and girl.

It's very complex and I'm afraid that the attention that we pay to it - and of course it's good that we're doing this show - but the attention that we pay to it and the feelings that we stage for it are empowering it and also channeling our energy into places that I don't think we necessarily need to go when there are more urgent problems.

CONAN: Carlos, thanks for the call.

CARLOS: OK. Thanks.

CONAN: All right. Bye.

And here's an e-mail from Alex(ph) in Minneapolis.

It seems that the Q-word - i.e. queer - has become acceptable in mainstream culture as well as LGBT culture. Personally, I hate this word. It means freak of nature. I don't see myself as a freak of nature, rather my being gay is an important part of nature's plan. I would say I prefer the word homo to describe myself over queer. I know people say we're reclaiming the word, but I think that's hogwash. There are all kinds of negative words for lots of groups that are just as offensive but no one is reclaiming them.

Mr. SAVAGE: Well, homo to a lot of gays and lesbians is as offensive as the F-word and is used commonly as an insult. I mean this is one of the problems you have when you start trying to police a language like this. You get people claiming to speak for all gays and lesbians everywhere, like GLAAD, who say, you know, it's never acceptable to use the F-word.

But then you have large numbers of gays and lesbians running around using the F-word. There's still some debate about whether we can use the word dyke, the D-word I suppose I should call it right now. But there's a lesbian bar in San Francisco called, literally, Dyke Bar. And are straight people supposed to refer to it as the lesbian drinking establishment when you walk by. They're not allowed to call it by its name, this name that was given to it by its lesbian owners?

CONAN: Then there's the schoolyard, grade school use of the word gay as a pejorative.

Mr. SAVAGE: That's right. Gay is now a negative term. It means things are lame, which is itself a negative term by implying there's something wrong with it or disabled.

CONAN: There you go.

Mr. SAVAGE: I mean things are lame or stupid or retarded, and gay has become almost more insulting. I know gay people who use gay in the negative sense to describe things that they don't think of highly as gay, and use that pronunciation and with the same dismissive tone as any 9-year-old or 10-year old in the schoolyard uses.

So language is just too fluid actually to establish rules. As Mr. McWhorter pointed out on earlier, you know, taboos rise and fall and words sort of become acceptable, and progress goes on in linguistics too. And these words one day would all - you know, some of the listeners of this program a hundred years now and laugh at our sensitivities.

CONAN: Let's hope that there's still digital audio somewhere for a hundred years from now. Anyway, for a sense of the politics of slur words within the African-American community, we turn now to Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of black popular culture at Duke University. His latest book is titled "The New Black Man: Rethinking Black Masculinity." He's with us from a studio on the Duke campus in Durham, North Carolina. Nice to have you on the program today.

Professor MARK ANTHONY NEAL (Black Popular Culture, Duke University): Good afternoon, Neal.

CONAN: And let's go back for a moment to the controversies surrounding "Grey's Anatomy" star Isaiah Washington. What are you hearing from people, black people, about this incident?

Prof. NEAL: You know, what I find really interesting about Mr. Washington, and hear is someone who has played a gay man, you know, in movie. For many mainstream audiences, "Grey's Anatomy" is an introduction to him, but he's been around for a while and has performed in at least four of Spike Lee's movies, in the film "Get on the Bus" in fact, where he plays an out gay man.

So I think many folks were surprised, you know, about his utterance of the word. But I think what's very interesting about his utterance of the word and the idea that, you know, there would be an ability to galvanize the African-American community around him was that this is a show with a multiracial task, with a black woman who's a producer, with at least two other prominent African-American characters in the show. And he could very easily disappear. And no one would really care in that regard. So I'm wondering whether or not Isaiah Washington really misread the politics of who he was within the context of the show.

And particularly the context of the slur that he said he clearly thought there would be little, if any, retribution for his use of the slur, which is why he denied he use it in the first place. And then again when he used it the second time in an act of denying that he said it the first time.

I really didn't think he believed there was any retribution for that. And that's not unusual, I think, for some African-American performers and celebrities. It's one of the things that we see a great deal, for instance, in hip-hop culture, particularly around hip-hop media and hip-hop radio.

The things that we've seen at Hot 97, where there have been slurs against Asian American folks. There were jokes about the tsunami a few years ago. There's this perception that because those folks aren't necessarily a part of the hip-hop audience that some folks are comfortable saying what they want to say, thinking that there will be little or any retribution for what they say.

What I find interesting is that, you know, in the terms of Isaiah Washington's comments, you know, his use of the F-word is being read as a pejorative specifically against a white male in this context.

And I think what's been erased in the conversation is how black gays and lesbians and transgendered to transsexuals respond to what clearly is a homophobic use of the word.

CONAN: And given that, it's important to point out that this word - we're calling it the F-word for the purposes of this broadcast today - has a lot of resonance in - it's used a lot by black people.

Prof. NEAL: I don't want to - I just think about just being a boy myself and playing basketball where we threw the word around a great deal. And I don't think any of us, you know, as kids thought about it in terms of it being a homophobic slur or identifying somebody as homosexual.

What we were thinking about it is that we were trying to make the claim that the person that we were playing against or battling with was less than a man, and that was the easiest term to use within that context. And while I think that's something that we need to be cognitive of and see it as a pejorative, I think - and there's fine points here that they were talking about, but I'm not sure it's always used explicitly in terms of being a homophobic commentary.

Mr. SAVAGE: But the problem with young people using the word in that sense, just to belittle someone and say they're less than a man, is that among young people there are going to be closeted young gays and lesbians who have not yet come out. And it may roll off the back of, you know, young heterosexual males to whom would read it just like an insult and then double up on their game and beat the guy and win and show it's not true that way. The gay people who hear that who are not yet out will be terribly, terribly wounded.

Prof. NEAL: Oh absolutely. I mean that's why the T.R. - T.L. Knight situation is interesting because here was someone who was not ready to come out. And Isaiah Washington in this regard forced his hand. And I think ABC and Disney, in fact, are responding to what's happening amongst a community of actors on this show in that regard, in that it changed the kind of trajectory of where the show was going and who the actors - how they got along, issues of collegiality. Because he was essentially outed by one of his, you know, colleagues.

CONAN: Let's get another listener on the line. And this is Jeff. Jeff's with us from San Antonio.

JEFF (Caller): Hi there. I'm a gay man and I have three basic ideas. First of all is use of the F-word within the gay community. I think we use it so much because it takes the pain and the fear out of the word. People use the N-word and the F-word to scare people, to make them afraid, and we need to be able to stand up and say we're not going to be afraid of people who use it.

And the second point is, is that way in a sense we need to be out there competing in that marketplace of free speech, showing people that we are not afraid of words like this. And even to me, in some extent with both blacks and gays, showing that people who use those words may need to fear us. That is they may lose their job, they may risk retribution in other ways.

And my final point is, is that if we start to ban these words, and what scared me - one recent example is the cross-burning case with the Supreme Court. When we ban cross burning, when we ban these words, we may forget these words and we may forget the horrible things that happened along with them.

CONAN: John…

JEFF: If we just strike them out of our vocabulary.

CONAN: John McWhorter, I wonder if you'd respond to that.

Mr. MCWHORTER: You know what worries me about that? Using those words and associated statements as battering rams in that way - I understand the basic motivation. But the problem is that to the extent that there are so many more concrete ways that people could be hurt or can be disadvantaged, it worries me, like I said, that we channel our energy into those things rather than more constructive.

Like - briefly - for example, today on the hate speech scene the big deal is that Senator Joseph Biden has made a statement that implies that Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and Carol Moseley Braun are neither articulate, bright, nor clean. It could be taken that way. Now the fact of the matter is that Joe Biden is a very smart man. He has a partition plan for Iraq, he's articulate, he reads books, he would be a wonderful candidate for the presidency. But it looks like his candidacy has been killed at the starting gate just because something a little clumsy slipped out of his mouth that could be taken as a racial slur.

Nobody would care about those things being said about Kay Bailey Hutchinson and Dianne Feinstein. This was something that had a kind of a black racial tinge in many people's eyes. And so goodbye to that very intelligent candidate. I would rather just let that go. But that now is going to be the thing that we remember most about Biden.

Mr. SAVAGE: How intelligent is a candidate who would let that fly and not be sensitive to the ways in which those terms have been misused or misimplied…

Mr. MCWHORTER: Biden has an aggressive intellect and he's never been the politest of people, and he talks an awful lot inevitably…

Mr. SAVAGE: We've had fixtures of a thoughtless, clueless president, and I don't think we need four years of another. So if this killed Biden's chances, I'm content.

CONAN: Jeff, thanks very much for the call. I appreciate it.

We're talking about linguist John McWhorter, editor Dan Savage and Professor Mark Anthony Neal about the power of slurs. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's get Cindy on the line. Cindy's with us from Denver, Colorado.

CINDY (Caller): Hi there. You know, I'm a bipolar woman who has come out of the closet. And I hesitate to even use the C-word here. I call myself crazy. It doesn't bother me. I think it's sometimes it's a very appropriate term. But I wonder how far are we going to go with our words. How sensitive are we getting here? I mean are we going to banish the word crazy because it's been used in the past to describe people who have had mental brain diseases? You know, there's a big push right now to get rid of this association of words like insane and crazy to describe people who have mental disorders and brain disorders.

CONAN: And we've had e-mails from people who are physically disadvantaged are trying to take back the work crippled, which again has been taken as a slur by many of them. I wonder, Mark Anthony Neal, are we entering a new realm of political correctness?

Prof. NEAL: I think one could argue that. I mean one of the things that disturbed me about Michael Richards and his use of the N-word were the calls to ban the word. And again, this is something that John McWhorter, you know, suggested earlier. We get into a frenzy about these words and the words are only representative, they're only symbolic of real abilities to impact upon people's lives. And the idea that somehow if we ban the N-word in 2007, you know, that 200 years of white supremacy would disappear or that, you know, the N-word is what was holding up, you know, 200 years of white supremacy, you know, just strikes me as absurd.

And I think we need to be able to understand, you know - Mr. Savage mentioned earlier about intent. Intent and context. I mean if we take the time, you know, as human beings to be able to discern intent and context, we can understand how people are using various words and various phrases and be able to deal with them as they are.

Mr. SAVAGE: I'd like to - one more example, Neal of…

CONAN: Go ahead, Dan Savage.

Mr. SAVAGE: …(unintelligible) use these words is there's an adult adoptee's rights organization that calls itself Bastard Nation. And its URL, its Web site is Bastards.org. Trying to like reclaim, you know, the stigma of having been born outside of wedlock or adopted.

CONAN: And John McWhorter - by the way, Cindy, thanks very much of the call.

CINDY: Thank you.

CONAN: The ownership of these words is important. If an Irish Catholic calls somebody the boys, it's clearly a reference to the IRA. If a white American uses it in reference to a Negro, it's an insult.

Mr. MCWHORTER: Yeah. There are such divisions, and those things arise because of natural tendencies in human social intercourse and community feeling. And so actually in the scientific sense it's rather interesting and deserving of study the way the N-word has evolved from what it began as into what it is today.

What does worry me is that with the N-word in particular we've gotten to the point that we have books about it and it's considered one of the most interesting things to talk about. Schools have forums about it, et cetera. When, as Mark Anthony Neal basically has implied, after all those things are said, there is the reality of the street, there is the reality of the barstool that will continue no matter what all of we smart people say. I just find it all a little bit trivial in the end.

CONAN: John McWhorter is the author most recently of "Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America." Dan Savage, editor of "The Stranger" and author of the syndicated advice column "Savage Love." Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of black popular culture at Duke University. Thanks to you all very much. We appreciate your time today.

Mr. MCWHORTER: Thank you.

Prof. NEAL: Thank you.

CONAN: When we come back, Amy Dickinson joins us. This is NPR News.

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