Blurred Slur

Language is awash in slurs: racist, ethnist, nationalist, sexist, ageist, classist, occupationist, sexual orientationist, “ism-ist,” and so on and so forth. The human race is a slurring race.

I’m far from wishing to resurrect offensive words from their just entombment. Very occasionally, however, and with cause, citing a slur by its name is a prerogative of responsible reporting, especially if maladroit paraphrase can lead to a misreading of what’s reported.

There are sufficient displays of cant and rant by all parties in this story, but noteworthy is how it echoed in the NYTimes, which permitted the following headline:

“University Condemns Comparison of ‘OK, Boomer’ to Racial Slur by Professor.”

Clarity is of the essence in good journalism. It’s a single-impact genre, unlike essay or poetry, whose audience has more of a commitment to close reading. For a second, I thought someone had compared the phrase “OK, Boomer” to a racial slur uttered by a professor.

Not quite, but the subheading didn’t help:

“A professor at the University of Oklahoma provoked outrage by saying the phrase “OK, boomer” was like a racial slur for black people. He later apologized to students.”

For black people “OK, boomer” was like a racial slur? Still not quite. My point is that ambiguity could have been avoided by a headline such as this:

“University Condemns Professor’s Comparison of ‘OK, Boomer’ to the N-Word.”

Writing “the N-word” is not the same as spelling out what it euphemizes, and would have given immediate context to the outrage on campus, which is the story:

Molly Kruse, a 21-year-old senior who was in the class… said she walked out of the class at that moment and went to the dean’s office… Ms. Kruse said she hoped the incident spurred changes at the university. “The fact that someone could really think that ‘boomer’ is the equivalent of the n-word, I don’t know,” she said. “I hope this is a wake-up call that our college needs more diversity and professors need to be trained in how to include all students.”

… An organization of black student leaders with the stated mission of confronting racism on campus, said on Twitter that it expected “full action to be taken against the professor and college… In addition, we expect accommodation be made for the students who have experienced trauma because of this.”

“The use of the most offensive word, by a person in a position of authority, hurt and minimized those in the classroom and beyond,” [Interim president Joseph Harroz Jr.] said.

In his email to students, [Peter Gade, director of graduate studies at the university’s journalism school] wrote, “I made an inexcusable mistake this morning in class with my choice of a word… I was wrong. I am sorry. I realize the word is hurtful and infuses the racial divisions of our country, past and present. Use of this word is inappropriate in any — especially educational — settings…” He asked students to “please give me an opportunity” to show he was an instructor who was “trustworthy and respectful of all.”

(Maria Cramer, “University Condemns Comparison of ‘OK, Boomer’ to Racial Slur by Professor,” NYTimes, 2-12-20)

There it is, in several nutshells: the not-knowing, the trauma, the minimizing, the sorrow.

(c) 2020 JMN

About JMN

I live in Texas and devote much of my time to easel painting on an amateur basis. I stream a lot of music, mostly jazz, throughout the day. I like to read and memorize poetry.
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