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Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Modifiers

I write this with some trepidation. So I'm going to begin with a disclaimer: I am not trying to suggest anything about what is right or wrong or what should be treated as right or wrong. I just want to think about how we treat certain speech. Please keep that in mind in any responses. OK, I just set myself up for some very high (or low) expectations, so here we go.

Steve Williams is a professional golf caddy who worked for Tiger Woods  for more than a decade (earning a lot of money, as well as a reputation as being Woods' overbearing bodyguard/hitman on the course). Woods unceremoniously fired Williams last summer, a move over which Williams is still just a bit bitter. Williams caught on with a golfer named Adam Scott (who himself has a rivalry and tension with Tiger); Scott won a tournament earlier this year, after which Williams preened and called it the greatest victory of his life. Over the weekend, at a caddie celebration dinner, Williams explained "I wanted to shove it up that black arsehole."  Word of what Williams said at the closed, "off-the-record" event quickly got out. Williams issued a typical famous-person denial by the next morning, saying "I apologize for comments I made last night . . . I now realize how my comments could be construed as racist. However, I assure you that was not my intent. I sincerely apologize to Tiger and anyone else I've offended."

Williams is being criticized for making a "racist" remark and he used that term in his sort-of apology. But should his remark be considered racist and why or why not? Do they suggest he is racist? Or are the remarks, and therefore him, just stupid?

The upshot is that Williams is in trouble for using a bad modifier. Had he simply called Woods an "arsehole," people would have thought Williams was an obnoxious ass, but not racist. Same thing had he called Woods a "cheating arsehole" (in reference to Woods widely reported infidelity) or a "sex-addict arsehole" (in reference to Woods reportedly seeking treatment for sex addiction) or "washed-up arsehole" (in reference to Woods struggles on the golf course). But Williams mentioned, in a purely descriptive way, the unquestioned fact that Woods is (part) black. And the narrative is that this modifier made his comments, and perhaps him, racis. Indeed, Williams' apology was all about his own state of mind--that he did not have racist intent in what he said and therefore is not racist.

But Williams did not use a racial slur. He did not attribute his dislike of, or anger at, Woods to Woods' being black (as opposed to being an arsehole). He did not make a statement about what type of person Woods is because of his race. He did not suggest Woods is inferior or incapable because of his race. He did not make a comment grounded in any racial stereotypes (compare when another golfer was criticized for joking about Augusta National serving soul food at the tournament dinner after Woods won the Masters). Williams made an observation and stated a fact--Woods is black. He also is, in Williams' view, an arsehole. And, therefore . . .

So that has been the change in our discourse: We have made the mention of race (along with other characteristics, such as ethnicity, religion, gender, etc.) improper even as a purely factual matter when criticizing someone. You can call someone a #$*&% with relative impunity; you no longer can call him a [Race/Gender/Ethnicity/Religion] #$*&%. And doing so tags the speaker as racist.

My best guess at a justification is that because race is (or should be) irrelevant to our opinion of someone, mentioning race serves no purpose. Thus, mentioning it, even as a factual modifier, calls attention to the target's status as a member of a minority or historically weak or disempowered group. The use of the modifier highlights the target's "otherness" or singleness in society. Williams would not have called a white golfer a "white arsehole", because emphasizing whiteness does not call up that otherness. Racializing the insult makes that insult worse by calling up and highlighting that otherness, even if that otherness is merely a descriptive modifier and not the heart of the insult. Or maybe the explanation is slightly different: Because race is irrelevant, anyone who mentions actually is using it as the basis of the opinion. In other words, Williams dislikes Woods because of his race (and not because of his arseholeness), otherwise he wouldn't have mentioned it.

I cannot emphasize strongly enough that I am not defending what Williams said or did. I only am trying to consider how and why we characterize the act a certain way.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on November 8, 2011 at 09:55 AM in Current Affairs, Howard Wasserman, Sports | Permalink

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Comments

Two days later... Well, that is an explanation about the effects of racist speech versus that of just stupid speech. And my point holds. Because there is much talk about how racists and their comments are resoundingly rejected (although I think that is exaggerated) there are great incentives to label racist comments as "just stupid" to save individuals from being considered racist or having made a racist comment.

As to the basic point of your post, several posters explained why the comment at hand was racist. Of course not all speech that touches on race is racist.

Posted by: Anonymous | Nov 12, 2011 1:36:54 PM

The difference between the remark being racist and just stupid is that society now regards racist speech (and the people who make racist statements) as immoral and to be rejected. We more-or-less tolerate merely stupid speech.

Which goes back to the basic point of my post: Does all speech that touches on race (as Williams' remarks did) become racist--thus rejected as irredeemable and immoral--or can it be merely stupid and thereby tolerated?

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Nov 10, 2011 10:52:52 PM

anon 7:54-- I asked because I've heard this distinction made many, many, times in my life in various forms; "He's not racist. He's just a dope" or that comment wasn't racist it was just dumb. It's usually offered to show that the person uttering the statement or taking the action bears no hostility toward blacks/Jewish people/or other group. This flows from the faulty premise that racism is just about personal hostility toward a group--racists are people who actively hate black people,for example. Making the remark "just" stupid suggests that there is no racially based hostility there, and thus the person is off the hook.

Posted by: anonymous |

Posted by: anonymous | Nov 9, 2011 1:49:55 PM

Interesting discussion, glad Howard raised it. I think the above comments nail the basic point, which is that invoking race in the context of an insult where race is not necessary includes and invokes race in a negative light. Two related points:

First, the Braun "Hebrew Hammer" example strikes me as the same point from the opposite direction. While the golf caddy was disparaging Woods, the nickname praises Braun as an excellent baseball player. Inclusion of race in that context is laudatory rather than disparaging. Cf. also soccer player Eusebio's nickname "the Black Pearl."

Second, does this article raise the same concerns?

http://gawker.com/5857593/yale-quarterback-faces-worst-white-boy-dilemma-ever

I read this recently and found the title annoying on much the same theory as above. The story is that the Yale QB has to choose between going to his Rhodes interview and playing in the Harvard/Yale game. Why the author needs to invoke "white boy" in describing the dilemma escapes me, except to the extent that the only contribution of the article is to racialize the situation for the sake of a joke.

Of course, one could say that this is just like "Hebrew Hammer" or "Black Pearl," where the writer is basically complimenting the person. But certainly if they referred to this as a "Jew boy" or "black boy" dilemma that wouldn't fly, and I think people would be right to say that such a phrasing would be unnecessarily disparaging to those groups.

Posted by: Dave | Nov 9, 2011 12:34:52 PM

I would not have thought Williams an "obnoxious ass" or "just stupid" if he had called Woods a "cheating arsehole." I would have thought his comment accurate, if crudely expressed.

The distinction is not between stupid or racist. It's between accurate without the racist/racialized language and accurate with the racist/racialized language. If Williams had called Woods a "black cheating arsehole," then the accurate part of the statement would still be accurate, but would now have become racist/racialized. That does not take away the properties of the statement which are true. It only tells us something additional (something ugly) about the speaker.

Posted by: anon | Nov 9, 2011 7:54:26 AM

And further, what is the point of differentiating between "just stupid" remarks and racist remarks?

Posted by: Anonymous | Nov 9, 2011 7:17:59 AM

I think it was Chris Rock who said that in the United States today no one can be considered a racist unless they killed Medger Evers. I think the same goes for racist comments. The statement was racist for the reasons offered by previous commenters. It trades on a history of devaluation and, even, demonization of blackness. It buys into and furthers those efforts.

Posted by: Anonymous | Nov 9, 2011 7:11:51 AM

Apropos of Jen's comment: Ryan Braun of the Milwaukee Brewers, the latest in the line of individual Jewish ballplayers who gets a lot of fans because he is Jewish, is nicknamed "The Hebrew Hammer."

Second, let me tweak this a bit with a distinction emphasized at a faculty workshop here recently: the difference between racialized and racist. Mentioning Woods' race *racializes* the insult. But does that make it *racist*? And does the difference matter if both are wrong and hurtful?

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Nov 8, 2011 10:26:39 PM

Yes, people right about "owning" the disparaging term, but it seldom works.

Posted by: anonymous | Nov 8, 2011 8:35:01 PM

I agree with what others posted, but thought I'd share an interesting story I heard over lunch today. A colleague was saying that his son in high school was one of only about three Jewish kids in his school. The German club was printing t-shirts with kids' nicknames on them. His son's nickname was "the Jew." The son did not find it offensive in any way. The son, an intellectual with a very bright future, explained to his father that his group of friends was engaging in post-racial humor. My colleague prohibited his son from printing "The Jew" on his German club t-shirt. The kids weren't trying to be offensive; nor was the target offended. Nonetheless, such comments, while factually accurate and without pejorative connotation in other contexts, are racist. Now, a more interesting question arises when a member of the group uses the same term, as probably was done in this instance. I know some sociologists have written about the impact of "owning" the term.

Posted by: Jen Kreder | Nov 8, 2011 8:09:29 PM

Wow, sugar huddle's comments made me remember something that I hadn't thought about in years: word got back to me that an opposing lawyer had been speaking of me to someone else, and called me "that tobacco-chewing Jewish son-of-a-bitch." I called him up and asked him wtf, and he attempted the "mere modifier" evasion - "you are Jewish, aren't you? so what's the problem?" It was unconvincing, because I am familiar with human language usage.

Posted by: Sam | Nov 8, 2011 2:53:09 PM

I disagree that "race as a modifier serves no purpose." In the context of an insult like this, "black" becomes part of the insult. It also tells us that after working with Tiger for years, the most salient fact about Tiger for the speaker is still blackness- not a character trait or their relationship, but blackness. In the same way "tell that Jew lawyer we reject his insulting settlement offer" or "I bet that gay asshole rues the day he met me" adds "Jew" and "gay" to the insult without either one being a "slur," it also communicates the views of the speaker, who saw fit to include that modifier-- because when he thinks of the person in question, the minority status is a constant that becomes more important than facts or context or individual, personal traits, and is exposed in a moment of anger.

Posted by: sugar huddle | Nov 8, 2011 2:44:06 PM

I basically agree with Anon (#1) and don't really think it's a hard question.

If I said to somebody angrily, "Look at you, standing there with your shirt tails untucked, giving me a lousy answer to my question about Federal Rule of Evidence 701," the obvious implication is that I felt that the untucked shirt was indicative of stupidity or some other bad quality. No one would say, "well he was just pointing out, without any implied judgment, the true fact that his shirt was untucked!"

If I was a big guy and I said about somebody, in an angry tone, "He's a little 98-pound jerk," everyone would understand that I thought that the fact that he was small was a point against him. Everyone would understand that I meant the body description as a negative, and wouldn't ponder whether my estimate of his weight was accurate or exaggerated.

Why is there any question about whether the caddy's remarks have a similar negative implication about race?

Posted by: Sam | Nov 8, 2011 2:16:42 PM

I think it has to do with a forward looking view. Comments like the one here, especially ones made by prominent people, reinforce subconscious social stereotypes about race. It's associating "black" with "bad" in the public mind. So whether or not the statement is racist (I think that's a subjective, more difficult question) it's definitely bad in some way.

Posted by: Andrew MacKie-Mason | Nov 8, 2011 11:39:52 AM

Your "best guess" is what's going on. Yes, it's factually true that he's black. But why mention it? It's the context that matters.

Often times, with race, if you take a comment out of its immediate context, or its historical context, the statement can be labeled non-offensive. But with race, it's nearly always context dependent.

Is the caddy a racist? I don't know. But his comment was racist.

Posted by: Anon | Nov 8, 2011 11:23:05 AM

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