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Sunday, March 24, 2019

Inclusive forests and racist-insult trees

The history podcast Backstory did an episode on the history of profanity. The fourth piece is an interview with Smith College history professor Elizabeth Pryor, who is the daughter of comedian Richard Pryor. (You can listen and read the full transcript of the story at the link).

Pryor begins with a story about a lecture on citizenship and the Civil War, in which a white student repeats the following joke from Blazing Saddles (which Richard Pryor co-wrote with Mel Brooks):

The joke is relevant to a lecture on 19th-century citizenship, a time in which Irish people did face discrimination.

But Pryor describes the class encounter as follows: "And she said, 'We don’t want the CH’s and the N words, but we will take the Irish,' but she said all the words."

Pryor got the joke backwards. The difference between the joke and how Pryor describes the joke gives it an extra layer, especially as it relates to that lecture. The people of Rock Ridge use racist epithets to describe Black and Chinese people but are willing to accept them in their community; they do not use epithets to describe the Irish people but are unwilling to accept them in their community. This presents some nice questions to explore: Which is worse--being excluded or being described in disparaging terms? How much do the epithets show that Black and Chinese people are not accepted in the community, even if allowed to live among them, because identified in disparaging terms? Does the sole focus on words obscure actions?

Posted by Howard Wasserman on March 24, 2019 at 01:52 PM in Culture, First Amendment, Howard Wasserman, Teaching Law | Permalink


My view is that the only non-African American who should even consider using the N-word is Lenny Bruce, although I think Mel tries to use it in the same counter-racist vein. On the merits, it is important to get both the joke and the history right. While there were many forms of discrimination against southern and eastern Europeans, including bias based on the Jewish or Catholic religion practiced by many immigrants from that region, this is an area where precision is important. As far as I know, Irish Americans were never statutorily denied the right to vote, citizenship, naturalization, or land ownership based on their race, religion, or national origin. Land ownership is particularly relevant to the context of Blazing Saddles because Irish immigrants could participate in the racially restricted federal land giveaways of the West of which the Homestead Act was the most famous, while Chinese Immigrants and persons of African ancestry whether native or immigrant could not, at least for the first few decades. Making a broad generalization, two scholars of the subject conclude that “there was essentially no [southern and eastern European] SEE-white boundary. Contrary to the arguments of many whiteness studies historians and the social scientists who have drawn on their work, we contend that wherever white was a meaningful category, SEEs were almost always included within it, even if they were simultaneously positioned below” northern and western Europeans. Cybelle Fox & Thomas A. Guglielmo, Defining America’s Racial Boundaries: Blacks, Mexicans, and European Immigrants, 1890–1945, 118 AM. J. SOC. 327, 364 (2012). The article is well worth reading in my view.

Posted by: Jack Chin | Mar 27, 2019 3:25:35 PM

Pryor came to change his mind about the propriety of the word, believing he was wrong in his earlier uses. His daughter talks about it in the piece and Pryor discussed it in his "Live at the Sunset Strip" movie.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Mar 25, 2019 11:21:46 PM

The story has it that a lot of the white actors in the movie, most particularly Slim Pickens, had a lot of trouble directing the n word at Cleavon Little and the other black actors. Little and Richard Pryor had to assure them over and over that it was okay in that context, that racism was being lampooned.

Posted by: MGould | Mar 25, 2019 9:05:51 PM

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