ON RACE: ARE BAD WORDS REALLY HATEFUL? 06/26/03
I've been thinking about "hate" crimes and "hate" speech lately, and I'm reminded of two episodes from my childhood. The first one was when I was in sixth grade at St. Paul the Apostle school in Manhattan. Most of my friends lived in the Amsterdam housing projects, right behind Lincoln Center. Most days, after school, we would go to the Lincoln Center Library and do childish things, like sliding down the escalators, or scratch up the great Motown records (after listening to them, of course). Across the street was the Julliard school, where we would sneak in and try to get a peek at the aspiring ballerinas practicing. They were like creatures from another planet, all of them so pale and skinny, with their hair pulled up in a little bun on top of their heads. One day we stayed outside, and taunted them as they left the school, saying "HON-KEY, HON-KEY, HON-KEY!" This was great fun for an hour or so, after which we went back over to Lincoln Center to hang out. I finally got around to asking one of my friends what a "honky" was. After he told me, I said "but wait, I'M WHITE!". One of my friends said "You're not Puerto Rican?", to which I replied "I've got blond hair and freckles!". He replied, "Chris, YOU A HONKY!". We all laughed, and no friendships were ended that day, though we didn't "honky-bait" the Julliard girls again.
The second episode was maybe a year or so later, when I was spending weekends in Freeport with my father. I met a whole new bunch of kids from south Freeport (all white), and quite a different culture. I was talking with a girl from this crowd, when I said to her "nigger, you're crazy". OH BOY. The resulting commotion could be called "culture shock", but I was lucky the whole crowd didn't kick my ass! I tried to explain that where I was from, that expression was no more offensive than saying "Man, you're crazy" or "Dude, you're crazy". I can still remember her screaming "He called me a nigger!", over and over as my brother helped smooth things out with the crowd. I still wonder if she would've had as bad a reaction if I had said "Bitch, you're crazy". However, I'm proud to say that I watched many people from that crowd overcome their racism in the following years, especially during high school.
The point of these stories is that you can't judge what's in a person's heart or mind just by what they say on one occasion. You also can't guess at what another person might be over-sensitive to, or what they actually hear when you speak. I realize that I'm citing childhood anecdotes, showing me to be quite a naive child. As adults, more is expected of us. Therein lies my problem with "hate crime" laws. If I get into a fight with a black guy, and I call him "nigger" during the fight, is that a "hate crime"? Considering my above stories, couldn't I make a case that, in my formative years, I learned that word as being no more offensive than "man" or "dude"? Would a jury buy it? Or how about a customer at the motel, an old black man who said to me "they should ship you back to Ireland"? (I swear it's true, Anna was on the phone listening to the whole thing!) Should I have denied him a room, and sued him for "hate speech", or just laughed it off? I laughed it off, of course. However, I don't see a need to apologize for using "bad" words in my everyday speech (or my emails). I don't use racially polarizing words nearly as often as I use plain old profanity, which is supposed to be offensive to everyone. While society is getting more permissive of general profanity, more and more words are deemed "politically incorrect" due to racial over-sensitivity. Well, I'm not buying it. The only person I have to worry about offending is the man who looks back at me in the mirror; he's the most honest judge of my character.
We're all human, and quite fallible. Once we accept this, maybe we can work around all of our individual "quirks" and "biases". I may hate what someone else has to say, but I will defend their right to say it, unless it actually incites others to break the law.
CHRISTOPHER K. LEAVITT