Racism exists, and racists use racial slurs. When this happens, the insult is usually intentional, and the meaning is unambiguous. They use these terms either to establish dominance over another person/group, or to mobilize and motivate other racists. For the most part, we all know and recognize language that is used to do that. Its whole raison d’etre is to communicate racism. It’s not all that subtle, because subtlety doesn’t have the intended effect.

Now we are creating a very different kind of “racial slur,” if it can be called that. Racial animus is assigned to words or phrases even if the linkage to racism is unknown to everyone who uses it, even if no living person uses it to communicate racism. The connections to racial inequality are historical, and so indirect that we need experts to alert us to them. Did you know that “cakewalk,” “fuzzy wuzzy,” and “master bedroom” are racial slurs? Now you do. And it is not just words. A few weeks ago, we learned that the scratchy, distorted version of “turkey in the straw” wafting into the neighborhood from ice cream truck loudspeakers was (according to some) perpetuating racism. Why? Because a racist recording from 1916 used the tune. Even though no ice cream business owner, truck driver or kid chasing the truck had any idea of this imputed meaning, everyone stopped using that song. …


Milton Mueller

Professor, Researcher on information and communnication technology policy, cybersecurity, Internet governance

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