Culture Wars, Education, recent

Racial Slurs and Deferential Condescension

Over the last week, Western University (where I am currently enrolled) has been mired in scandal over an instructor’s decision to utter a racial slur during a discussion of popular culture in his English literature class. More specifically, the instructor (Andrew Wenaus) suggested that Will Smith’s use of the phrase “home butler,” in a 20-something year old episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, may have been a subtle reference (sanitized for consumption on syndicated television) to the phrase “house nigger,” which was, during the pre-emancipation period, used to refer to black slaves who worked in the household.

It is, I suppose, debatable whether Smith’s use of the phrase “home butler” was in fact intended by the show’s writers as a reference to the aforementioned slur. It is not, however, debatable whether or not this slur was used to refer to black slaves who worked in the household. That is a straightforward historical fact.

For daring to articulate this fact in his classroom, Wenaus has been dragged on social media (and by the local press) as racially insensitive at best, and a racist at worst. He has had to issue a public apology, along with promises to undergo additional sensitivity training, and Western’s president has established a specialized task-force aimed at combatting systemic racism on campus (of which Wenaus’ utterance apparently constitutes evidence). Meanwhile, Western’s Ethnocultural Support Service has issued a statement reminding the university community that it is always inappropriate for a white person to utter the offending term, “regardless of intent or how they said it.” This preempts any possible appeal to the presumptively anti-racist intentions behind Wenaus’s lecture, or to the crucial distinction between the use and mention of a term.

Such considerations are—or so we are now told—irrelevant to the question of whether Wenaus is guilty of a racist infraction. They are, in effect, trumped by the emotional reactions of the black students who were present, to which everyone else is being asked to defer. This deferential standard basically asserts that white people have no right to an opinion about what is or is not racist, and that to suggest otherwise is a mark of racial privilege. So, if a black student declares that Wenaus’s utterance was racist, then it was racist. End of discussion.

The deferential standard is self-defeating in at least two ways. Firstly, it is unable to account for the fact that there will inevitably be differences of opinion among black people about whether a given incident or statement is racist. Although several black people at Western have objected to Wenaus’s remark, I am personally acquainted with several others who find it to be unobjectionable, given the context in which it was uttered, and the intention of the speaker (which was presumptively anti-racist). They cannot all be right. But according to the deferential standard, both camps speak with equal moral authority by virtue of being black, which implies that the same incident must be at once both racist and not-racist. This is clearly absurd.

If we are unwilling to accept this incoherent conclusion, we need to find some way of adjudicating which of our two disagreeing camps of black people has it right. The only way to do so would be to posit a set of objective criteria governing what is and isn’t racist. But by doing so, we have already abandoned the notion that we are obligated to defer to the opinions of black people, as this latter approach would be appealing to a subjective standard. And if we can agree that there exists a set of objective criteria governing what is and isn’t racist, there seems to be no good rationale for forbidding white people from participating in discussions about what those criteria are and the circumstances under which they are applicable. Thus, the deferential standard leads to a paradox, for which the only solution is to reject the deferential standard.

The deferential standard is also self-defeating because it overlooks the fact that some black people find the standard itself to be racially patronizing. For example, John McWhorter (a linguist at Columbia University, and a frequent commentator on race-related issues) has recently written, in response to an eerily similar incident at The New School, that:

I am someone susceptible to having that word leveled at him. If I were angry with Sheck [of The New School] for uttering the word in a sympathetic and sensitive discussion, that would make me seem, in being so hypersensitive to injury so abstract, inferior indeed. Furthermore, if nonblacks embrace this hypersensitivity as a way of showing that they are good people, they make me feel exploited.

Now, if the feelings of every black person are to be treated as authoritative (as the deferential standard requires), this would mean that McWhorter’s assessment of the deferential standard is beyond dispute. And since he, as a black person, regards the deferential standard as being racially patronizing, this means that the deferential standard is—according to its own principles—racially patronizing. Thus, the deferential standard is also self-defeating in that it strips itself of any means of self-defense against allegations of racial insensitivity.

In addition to the self-defeating qualities of the deferential standard, I should also say that the policy currently enforced at Western (underpinned by an adherence to the deferential standard) seems to me to be fundamentally at odds with the function of a public university. This is, ostensibly, a secular institution, with a truth-seeking mandate. Our motto is Veritas et Utilitas (truth and utility). Unless the conjunction in this motto is to be interpreted as meaning “but only insofar as it conduces to,” then the University’s response to the Wenaus incident strikes me as an outright betrayal of its own mission. We are effectively being told that, at this truth-seeking institution, it is inappropriate for us to utter certain indisputably true statements, because the value of truth is trumped by the emotional states of one or another demographic.

Having raised these concerns in a number of private discussions, I am distressed to report that the consensus, amongst those of my colleagues with whom I have felt comfortable discussing the matter, seems to be that I am insufficiently respectful to those black students who have been made to feel uncomfortable by Wenaus’ remark. One colleague expressed doubts as to whether it was appropriate to tell an aggrieved black student, “you shouldn’t be hurt because reasons.”

The substance of my reasoning appears not to be a factor here at all. This strikes me as confirmation of another of John McWhorter’s assessments of the Social Justice activist movement. Namely, that its requirement “that one suspends disbelief at certain points out of respect to the larger narrative” exposes it as a religious faith. Given the influence that this activist movement seems to have on Western’s campus, the University may therefore need to rethink its status as a secular institution.


Matthew Small is a graduate student at Western University.


  1. It is not, however, debatable whether or not this slur [house nigger] was used to refer to black slaves who worked in the household. That is a straightforward historical fact.

    Who used this slur? Isn’t it most often used by blacks against other blacks to accuse them of Uncle Tom-like servility and obedience, and more recently assimilation, to gain some advantage, to fit in, etc.? This then introduces the idea that blacks are to think and act in a certain way. If one doesn’t comply, then one is a traitor or even not black, which I suppose is more of an ideological claim than one of actual colour and race. “You may be black, but you’re not black.”

    After finding difficulty to determine the etymology of “house nigger”, I used Google’s ngram (oh, heavens) viewer find its use in books from 1800 to 2010. “House Nigger” doesn’t appear until 1942. Use was very uncommon then and just for a few years before disappearing. It re-appeared in 1960 and then skyrocketed, which suggests a correlation with the civil rights movement. Were blacks debating amongst each other how to conduct this movement and those who advocated a less forceful or militant stance accused of being “house niggers”? I reckon that’s for a historian to research.

    This raises a question: Since the hearer/reader can discern between a slur and a positive use of nigger when African Americans say it, then why can’t they do the same when people of other races say it? It seems to me there is a power dynamic at play here where blacks find the word nigger useful to demand further concessions and blanket statements of condemnation from authority figures. We’ve even seen instances of rappers inviting fans onstage to sing along and then berate the person after the lyrically correct word nigga is sung. This is a type of entrapment, suggesting to me that it’s a gotcha used by some blacks for their amusement.

    Because the word is so charged even completely unrelated words like snigger and niggardly get swept up in it. There appears to be a hunt for words with the intent to declare them offensive as a perverse form of collecting - who’s gathered the largest list?

    If we think of offensive words used against other historically oppressed people, kike comes to mind. When is the last time you heard anyone use that? It’s all but disappeared from use except by genuine anti-Semites like Richard Spencer, and this vanishing happened without the neologism “k-word” crafted. Are people searching through texts to find it and have books banned from libraries?

    The “Euphemism Treadmill” is what Stephen Pinker calls the process where some words are too charged for use, which forces the polite (or fearful) to find alternative words to carry the message neutrally, such as the n-word. Then that euphemism becomes familiar and it becomes the new dysphemism. Don’t be surprised when someone asserts that n-word is the same as nigger because all parties involved in the conversation think nigger when n-word is said and written.

  2. Why do administrations and professors show so little backbone in cases like this? Any student who is really hurt by any discussion related to black people is too immature or delicate to follow a college education. If no insult was intended, any apology is an admission of weakness and simply encourages further protest.

  3. I have been mulling this topic over for some time as it seems impossible to escape. I think a concerted effort must be made by those who want a return to social normalcy and the possibility of ideologically unconditioned thought and speech to take the Champion Belt of Harm away from the offended self identified so called oppressed group. One method is to attack identity itself - are you really what you say you are? who made you the spokesperson? what about those who share your so called identity but disagree with censorship, why don’t they get a voice? But I think these direct assaults on identity, no matter how convenient, self made, and self serving the identity is, are only part of the tool kit. After all people tend to defend nothing so much as their self conception no matter how irrational or selfish.

    My thoughts drifted to the idea of harm itself, can we take the title of harm away from the offended? I think one method would be to continuously repeat that censorship is violence, censorship is coercion and violence, which is why traditionally we don’t do it and when we do it is after a impartial legal process to measure all claims in as dispassionate and objective a manner as possible. Society has a stake in any act of censorship, it is always larger than feeling of the so called offended. Censorship is the GREATER harm. Censorship harms EVERYONE. Censorship is VIOLENCE. I think this kind of rhetoric has potential to put the identity/harm/so called oppressed activists on their heels and give institutions a rational and solid argument for rejecting ideologically motivated harm claims from the so called spokesmen of the so called oppressed.

    Incidentally, I was listening to the CBC last night and an aboriginal DJ and evident racial activist referred to Australia as “so called” Australia. After thinking and evaluating what this actually means, I have decided to use the so called terminology to as many annoying activist concerns as possible, most specifically the so called First Nations and their so called activists/ leaders. I mean why throw the pearls of respect and recognition to those who will only spit on you? Why should I be so selfish when I can return the favour?. So to the DJ whose name I can’t remember, thank you for the insight.

  4. Left-wing people do not have “conversations.” They use the word “conversation” to refer to interactions where they speak and we nod in silent agreement.

    The concept of “backbone” does not apply to scenarios where the authority agrees with and supports the misbehavior.

  5. An absurd thesis from a party that spent the better part of Obama’s presidency celebrating the public use of profanity by Biden and the private use of profanity by Obama as evidence that they are “passionate” and are “relatable”. People who criticized their language were “prudes”, in keeping with the stereotype of being behind the times.

    Trump is, more than anything, an opportunity to see the stupendous hypocrisy of the Left, as they shriek and wail over the reciprocation of their behavior.

  6. Yes, it’s a monologue. Much like “listen” means obey, “give voice to” means amplify the complaints of particular groups, and “silenced” means someone refused to be bullied by shrieking. Of course, “social justice” is injustice, the perpetration of acts intended to suppress the liberties of certain people to reverse, which is not to end, discrimination.

  7. As I recall, “racism” is defined as treating different people in different ways based solely on the color of their skin. Therefore, allowing black people to use the “N-word”, and not allowing white people to use it, simply because the former have darker skin and the latter have lighter skin, would be racism.

    My abject apologies for being logical.

  8. You are a truly extraordinary liar, Jack.

    You know full well that context is precisely what your camp ignores when tarring and feathering people for various wokeness violations. In case you hadn’t noticed, THIS VERY ARTICLE IS ABOUT EXACTLY THAT!

    Except he didn’t. Trump’s vulgarity is largely private, and occurs in smaller doses than that of Obama and other Democrats. That’s what all my links were an attempt to show you, but I overestimated your integrity in imagining you’d process them.

    Your kind attempt to blame others for all that you do wrong. It’s a defining trait of your ideology. You authored the trend towards divisiveness, intolerance, vulgarity, deplatforming, and political violence, and now you’re trying to Ministry-of-Truth it all onto Trump’s plate.

    We’re not as dumb as you need us to be.

  9. I had this discussion with an “ethnic awareness” instructor at a mandatory work class. My position was that using a racial slur in a disagreement was not necessarily evidence of racism, but instead a showing of contempt for your opponent; much like calling someone a “fat slob” if they are overweight or a dwarf if they are short. The instructor’s position was that ANY utterance of a racial slur was evidence of racism and thus should be prohibited.
    In the real world, I had the occasion where I asked a caseworker (who was Black) why he terminated an interview with a client and he replied “ because he called me a nigger.” The regional manager had overheard this explanation, and the BLACK employee was suspended; for quoting a racist and complying with a question from his boss!

  10. Right on, my n-word without hard r. Tremendous punt. You dodged the crux of the issue, which is: are people allowed to discuss the topics of history, culture, literature, etc. using the word nigger, such as discussing Huck Finn, house niggers, etc. without the intent to slur others? You retreated to what people may call each other. Two different issues. That you can’t or won’t keep distinct suggests you aren’t up to the task.

    And of course blacks don’t call each other hard r nigger from time to time. Those who do, well… those are only the racists and other ignorant types.

    In future, just post links to others’ content w/o comment because they do the speaking for you. In closing, a mind is a terrible thing to waste.

  11. “Don’t be surprised when someone asserts that n-word is the same as nigger because all parties involved in the conversation think nigger when n-word is said and written.”

    I am a hard core defender of the Freedom of Expression. That said shock theatre does not impress me. I will defend the shock jock’s right to his disgusting utterances but I likewise still consider him a reprobate (my euphemism). Just because one has the right to be a jerk doesn’t mean one has to be a jerk.

    However there is more going on here than just acknowledging and defending the right of jerks to be offensive. The real concern is the establishment of speech codes and regulation of speech. Almost everyone abhors vulgarity and there is a fairly even understanding of what constitutes vulgarity. So I would defend someone’s right to be vulgar, including saying nigger. As @gagamba points out the matter does not end there. If Mr. Wenaus had said “House Negro” instead, I suspect there would have been a similar outrage. Most everyone over 40 can recall the “Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television”. But with racial epithets there is no list or agreement. With racial vulgarity close enough or we will tell you what you meant, appears to be the standard. This is more than an infringement of someone’s Freedom of Expression. This is about the establishment of speech codes, penalties and hierarchies. With words becoming violence and civil penalties being assessed for prohibited usage, it is only a matter of time before we see speech criminals.

  12. I think one method would be to continuously repeat that censorship is violence, censorship is coercion and violence, … Censorship is VIOLENCE

    No! This sort of willful distortion of langauage, taking the metaphorical and treating it in a hyperbolic way as actual is one of the things that has led to the repressive environment we live in where we are coerced to accept, at least tacitly, contradictory, contrafactual and biggotted dogma. Simply refusing to accept this dogma is frequently described as violence. We can’t oppose this and at the same time do the same thing ourselves.
    Censorship is NOT violence, just as insults are not violence. We need to reserve the term violence for actual physical violence not for a metaphorical means of expressing its impact. Censorship can be impossed through violence in which case the violence needs to be condemmed as violence.

  13. Your comment ignores the fact that H. Clinton was born in Chicago and raised in a suburb of that city, in quite acceptable middle class conditions. But keep on making stuff up, it’s fun to read.

  14. I remind all here that what @JackBNimble is doing is shifting the focus of the issue from the one of may people use verboten words when discussing or even portraying the history, literature, culture of the particular era to one of “can I call a black person nigger”? Why? It’s far easier to argue against the latter. "Only a ginger can call another ginger ginger.

    Here’s a passage from Huck Finn: “It was fifteen minutes before I could work myself up to go and humble myself to a nigger; but I done it, and I warn’t ever sorry for it afterwards, neither. I didn’t do him no more mean tricks, and I wouldn’t done that one if I’d a knowed it would make him feel that way.”

    Huck isn’t happy about having to apologise to a black man, but he does it. Apologising to a black in the time and place was presumably very uncommon.

    If people read the passage aloud and then discuss this issue, say in a classroom, should it be, “It was fifteen minutes before I could work myself up to go and humble myself to an n-word; but I done it, and I warn’t ever sorry for it afterwards, neither. I didn’t do him no more mean tricks, and I wouldn’t done that one if I’d a knowed it would make him feel that way.”

    How would these be discussed?


    Further, Jack then appears to make an astonishing and unfounded assertion about rhotic and nonrhotic speakers, i.e. those who pronounce the r in words like park and career and those who r drop. Appears he believes that r dropping is exclusively black and therefore is to be monopolised by them.

    He continues with an attack on satire and vernacular speech. Seems he is too thin skinned to allow this. How might vernacular speech be handled in works of fiction and scripts? Apparently, with great difficulty if not impossibility if you’re a writer who isn’t black.

    Because of this misguided blanket prohibition of a word, many others now claim the same privilege to ban, ones that have expanded beyond individual words to actual topics. What is being established is a form of lese-majeste law, be it legal code, policy, or social convention, that creates an overclass who must never be offended.

  15. They might, but then the teachers too will run into the same thing you were just complaining about. Spending all that time explaining, especially with text, vernacular, and subjects that are quite unfamiliar to them. And if nigger or nigga is used in these texts, are certain people still forbidden to use those words?

    As I delve into this, I find your concern regarding a lack of materials to be speculative and over egged.

    Here’s a lesson plan addressing the very issue, and it even includes companion readings.

    This is not the only one. A simple google search finds so very many.

    On to the imprimatur effect. The over arching idea is one of permission, of a thumbs up because it’s in good standard. Because you and some others give it a thumbs down based on the notion a word must be banned, you appear to think you have a veto. You don’t, unless a kind of woke lese majeste applies.

    I hope others reading this understand the gambit he’s perpetrating. It’s censorship by other means - he couldn’t substantiate sound rationale for banning, so he’s hunting for other reasons, e.g. the claim teachers don’t have the time or the lesson materials. What next? Absence of comfy chairs? We see others in sense making roles use the same gambit about the quality of the others’ information, whereas their information is entirely truthful… as long as you don’t notice the lies by omission. But he’s already revealed his true motives earlier, so this is now a charade.

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