Monday, March 15, 2010

Why using racial slurs makes you a racist

I've spoken a few times about how an abundance of creepy sex scenes in a script often makes me wonder about how demented the writer behind the script is. I think I've even alluded to an utterly misogynistic read that was so offensive that if I ever met the writer, I'd have a hard time not suggesting professional help. When you're reading someone's creative product, sometimes it's hard not to profile them, particularly with regards to their most intense writing.

Just as excessively violent rape scenes tend to unmask latent misogynists, latent bigots often expose themselves in their own work through the use of racial slurs. Look, I'm not a PC-thug. I'm not out to revise history either. If you're writing a Civil War-era script about slaves escaping via the Underground Railroad, I'm not going to blink at a few uses of the word "nigger." It's in context, and that word was a part of those times. Similarly, a WWII script focusing on American G.I.s is well within its rights to use the word "Jap." It's not politically correct to use those terms today, but the writer shouldn't feel like they have to rewrite history.

For me, the problem comes in when I can tell that the writer is enjoying deploying those words too much, as if the setting gives him license to say all the things he wishes he could say today. I read one Western script where the writer not only had at least one use of the word "nigger" on almost every page, but his characters regularly employed the terms "wop," "Chink," "Chinaman," and "Kike." The only major slurs I think he missed were the aforementioned "Jap" and whatever word is used to insult Eskimos.

Those words popped up to such an extreme degree that by p. 20 it was uncomfortable to endure this writer coming up with new slurs, on top of the physical beatings he had his black slave characters enduring. There was so much hatred for other races radiating from this script that I was convinced the writer conceived the story just so he could have unbridled use of these ethnic and racial insults. Certainly there can be legitimate reasons for using these words, especially to show what the slaves of the time endured and show how a character was racist. But if you're playing in this arena, take care to make sure you don't alienate your audience by making every sentence consist of "nigger-this" and "nigger-that"

Context is key, but remember that at some point this is a piece of culture that will be finding its audience in the 2010s, not the 1870s. Do your best to evoke the time and be true to it without turning off your audience.

Many of you probably noticed that I didn't use the euphemism "the n-word" in place of the offending slur. There are probably even a few of you who take issue with that. If my usage of the word offended you, I apologize. I would never use that word to describe a person, as I agree, it is a vile, hateful word. There is a world of difference between using that word as an example of bad language, and using that word as an adjective to describe someone, as in "Joe Schmoe is a ______."

My opinion on the euphemism "the n-word" is that it doesn't really help. Frankly, it reminds me of the ridiculous way that many characters in Harry Potter are terrified of the word "Voldemort." As I believe Dumbledore points out, that sort of fear only ends up giving that word, and thus Voldemort himself, more power than it deserves. I think that if that euphemism were retired, it would de-mystify the slur somewhat. (After all, when the news reports on someone saying "fuck" they rarely refer to it as "the f-word." They either bleep the word or report that "a profanity" was uttered. Yet any time this slur makes the headlines, "the n-word" tends to be the euphemism of choice.)

Let me just preempt one argument. And this is going to a lead to a digression more of the sociological variety rather than the screenwriting, so feel free to head for the exits before I set up my soapbox.

I am not one of those asshole white bigots who tends to whine in op-eds and calls to talk radio shows, "How come WE can't say 'n**er' without being called racist?" Well, assclown... No one's stopping you from saying it. But if you use it, we're free to evaluate your credibility based on that language. "Nigger" is a racist word, so if you call someone a "nigger," YOU are a racist. If I call my friend Fritz Schumacher "a dirty Wop," would I really have a leg to stand on when someone accuses me of being a bigot?

Though to be fair, Fritz IS kind of a dick.

The usual counterargument is "Well, they call each other that!" Speaking as someone who's been on a schoolyard (and the schoolyards of several schools with 50% or higher black enrollment) I can say, "No, they don't." The slang term is "nigga" (no "r" sound) and there is a world of difference between the two words. Not that any Caucasians should use that either. Think of it like this: I can say, "Man, my brother is an utter moron" and we'll all have a laugh, but the instant YOU say, "Dude, your brother couldn't find his own ass even with both hands and a laxative to point him in the right direction," I would be well within my rights to kick your ass.

But to get back to the main issue, be careful when using loaded language. Shock value can only get you so far, satire might get you a little farther, but going overboard often makes readers feel like you're enjoying it a little too much.

But just to contradict myself, I thought it was implausible in The Blind Spot when the incredibly racist opposing teams neglected to use the most culturally loaded slurs when taunting Michael Orr. The fact that "digger" was the worst they could come up with left me feeling like there had been some last minute dubbing going on.

However, I can guess the motivation for restraint. It's not unreasonable to assume that the producers wanted this to be a family film and didn't want to use the slur in a way that might encourage imitation from younger viewers. That's fair considering the movie's intended audience, but had it been an R-rated drama, that oddity would have stuck out even further.


  1. I think if you're going to cross over into anything racial you need to just jump into it unapologetically. We're all adults, we know that racism exists, and all that cloaking it with words like "digger" does is lower the intellectual dialogue and make the writer look like they're too timid to be handling the subject matter they've chosen.

    If John McClane had walked into Harlem wearing a sign that said "I Hate Black People" it wouldn't have carried nearly the amount of gravity when he runs into Zeus and it wouldn't have been as clever an ice breaker for all the racial arguments that followed.

  2. It's funny, the only people that apparently can be racist are white people, when the simple fact is that EVERYONE ON THE ENTIRE PLANET ARE RACIST ASSHOLES.

    I'm sick of this racist shit. This week Tom Hanks said “it’s just taking an awfully long time for racism to be replaced by acceptance." He also rambled on some crap about racism in the Pacific during WWII.

    Let me tell you something you may have totally forgotten Mr. Hanks, the Japanese are THE MOST RACIST AND INSULAR SOCIETY ON THE ENTIRE PLANET. The atrocities the Japanese inflicted on the Koreans and the Chinese were as bad, if not worse than the Germans. To this day the Koreans and Chinese absolutely despise the Japanese.

    Back to my point, aside from the ever shrinking "West," the rest of the entire world is one big fuck up.

    We're living in a world where last week across the globe 500 Christians were hacked to death because they refused to convert to Islam, yet SPEEDY FREAKIN' GONZALES is now getting re-imagined because he is considered to be RACIST.

    Chris Rock considers the "n word" so radioactive that white people are only allowed to say it if they were assaulted, pissed on, robbed, and beat near to death by a black man.

    Southpark (as always) made a great point in their season finale that white people are pretty much on their way out as the majority.

    Let me go over the rules of "racism" for aspiring writers.

    In your script your characters can only say something "racist" if the characters are:

    Drug Dealers
    Or are otherwise utterly reprehensible.

    Naturally, you have carte blanche if you are of the same race as your characters. As an example, Spike Lee can say "Nigger" as many times as he wants in his films.

    People who can get away with "racism:"

    Southpark (Trey Parker and Matt Stone)

    Quentin Tarantino "Dead Nigger storage"

    Chris Rock "Fee, Fi, Fo, Figger, I hate's a Nigger"

    Mr. Show "Racist in the year 3000"

    If you're white, and not Quentin Tarantino, I would stay away from anything in your script that could be considered racist. Otherwise you're only "allowed" to be racist against your own respective race.

  3. Kgmadman and purplextrex both make EXCELLENT points. I recently completed a spec a couple weeks ago that had a bad guy who was fairly open about his racism. The setting was a closed-off community from modern-day reality. This particular character was a top dog, and basically thought he could get away with his biggotry with little reprocussions -- and he did!
    Anyway my trusted reader didn't like the racist remarks he made and fueled in conversation -- but I honesty felt that's the way this character would behave in this story's reality, so I made a deffense for how he was. NOT a defense of racism. As I'm against that. Personally, I believe every race should be given a fair shot in life, and not discounted based on their ethnetisity.
    But like kgmadman alluded to, we as writers SHOULD be allowed to portray negative steroytyes in our writing.

    As for me, the spec scritpt I'm aluding is called, "The Commune." The main bad guy I'm aluding to is a character who goes by the name of "The Brick."

    For the most part I think racism exists in secluded pockets in America. Mainstream white America isn't very racist. Go into someone's house, or close inner cirlce of friends; yeah, you MIGHT find SOME racism, but in all honesty American Caucasians have come a long way in their tolerance and acceptance of other races.

    - E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

  4. I have a more technical question about this - your article is looking more at profanity/racism in dialogue, it seems. How do you (or indeed the industry) feel about using it in the direction and action itself?

    I'm sure we've all seen scripts where the writer loads up every action paragraph with eff this and eff that, and there are a few TV shows whose 'house style' seems to have developed into phrasing like:

    He shoves the gun. RIGHT INTO HER F***ING FACE.

    Bold AND underlined. Oh yes.

    Now, me personally, I hate that. Takes me right out of what I'm reading and also makes the writer sound like kind of a prick as well. But what does The Hollywood think of this approach? Is it another aspect of a writer's 'voice' in his scripts, or is it an attentiongrabbing trick that producers and directors (and especially readers such as yourself) see riht through?

  5. you know what I can't stand? White guys who think they're sooooo edgy and cool and radical for using racist terms in screenplays, novels, comics, short stories, or stage plays. Then they scream about how they're trying to challenge society's norms on race and racism when they are confronted by people about their own racism, but there's no fucking point to using racist terms in their scripts. they only did it just to look "cool" when in fact, they look like idiots.

    Look, if you are gonna write a script that deals with race, racial identity, racism, or a minority group, I understand why you would throw in a few racial slurs to show racism and xenophobia. Otherwise, there's no f--king point.

  6. Purpletrex--

    some black people proudly embrace the word "nigger" as a way to take the stigma out of the word, because there is an ugly past behind the word. I know many queer people who also proudly embrace the words "faggot" and "dyke" as a way to take the power away from homophobes.

    Me and my Muslim friends, we joke around and call each other terrorists, sand niggers, etc because it's a way to express our frustration and anger at the mainstream media for racist, xenophobic coverage on Muslims, Islam and Middle Easterns. But it's NEVER OK for a non-Muslim or non-Middle Eastern to call me a terrorist or sand nigger.

  7. I'd be interested to see what you think of Tarantino's constant use of the word.

    I just finished a Civil War era story and it was actually difficult for me to use that word as often as I had to, but if you want to make a character look evil, just drop that word in their mouth and we already have an opinion of him.

  8. Did one poster here just prove your point?

    Also, MonsterZero, I guess I haven't read enough recent scripts. Had no idea so many contemporary ones were filled with directions like that. Hard to imagine "Casablanca" or "Sunset Boulevard" needing it.

    I too have the opposite problem - not wanting to use language where it needs to be used. In a current script I have guys calling guys the other F-word. And it was hard to put those words down there, especially in the case of a major character.

    I did not have this filter when I was a high-school writer. For some class I set a story in smalltown America, ca. late 1800s, and had someone using the n-word. Then I was surprised when my teacher inquired cautiously, "Now you just did that because the character would say that, right?"

  9. Thing is, if a writer has talent, knows what they're doing and creates truthful characters that totally involve you, it doesn't matter what words they use ... a great writer will use the right word for the right moment.

    Consider the word "fuck" for example ... in many a bad scripts, it's popped in every other moment and it feels awful and ugly and unnecessary ...

    Read Elmore Leonard (whom QT owes much in terms of artistic debt) or watch IN BRUGES or THE SNAPPER anything like that, and every foul word that's there is the exact right one at the right time ...

    It's the same with racial slurs, too ... But I agree, if I writer has a bias, I bet it comes out, especially if they're a bad writer.

    Just my opinion, of course.

  10. amyp3 - Yeah, Neil totally proved my point...

    Monster Zero - Well, used in moderation it doesn't bug me. If every page has stage direction with "right in the fucking face" type writing, I get annoyed pretty quickly though. Like anything else, use it when you really need it to have impact and it'll be a lot more effective.

    Deaf - Thank you.

    Emily - Tarantino usually is right on the line and often tip-toes across it, I'd say. It pulls me out of the moment a lot when he has his white characters do it in front of black characters because I feel like there's not a proportionate response from them. I recall reading an article about CRIMSON TIDE that mentioned that when Tarantino came to set to work on dialogue punch ups for the film, Denzel Washington had a few words for him about his uses of racial slurs.

    So do I think it makes his movies better? No.

  11. Wow, not sure I'm sorry I missed this. In the words of Lt. Dyke (Band of Brothers) "you take care of it."

  12. Here's the brilliant Louis CK on why saying "the n-word" instead of "nigger" is a bullshit cop-out.

    Besides that, I think intent matters. I knew a guy who used racist words, totally divorced from their context, just because they're so powerful as epithets. It wasn't an especially endearing quality of his, but it could be funny as hell when he (for example) stubbed his toe.

  13. Upon further consideration, I think you're being way too categorical about this. I'm not accusing you of being an oversensitive PC weenie, exactly, but I think a few bad experiences with racist scripts might have colored (no pun intended) your view.

    All words are acceptable. All intent is not. It's up to the writer to make the words work without taking you out of the story.

    For better or for worse, the three most powerful words in 2010 American English are, in descending order, "nigger," "cunt," and the variants of "fuck." Comedians know this, rappers know this, and screenwriters know this. Like all other words, they're tools. The most powerful tools should be used sparsely, if at all -- just as it takes a lot more than a jackhammer to build a house. An overtly racist diatribe in script form is obviously not doing any favors to anybody, but calling on a blanket ban of the terms because some asshole made you squeamish about them is a totally unacceptable solution.