Silencing the ice cream trucks: On the semantics of racial slurs

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.

There are several reasons why we need to challenge the way the definition of racial slurs is expanding. First, it is a massive distraction from the real problems of race relations. By randomly problematizing routine vocabulary based on very stretched connections to racism, racial dialogue becomes strained, difficult and artificial. It substitutes a checklist of taboos for understanding and interaction. It makes communication an exercise in conformity rather than a means to the end of understanding and equality. In addition, it is based on simplistic, false theories of human communication.

Let’s take the phrase “master bedroom.” This is now considered inappropriate, according to an earnest writer at House Beautiful, because of “its ties to slavery, implying a concept of dominance and ownership.”

Well, hang on. There is no intrinsic tie to slavery. In today’s world, master bedroom refers to parts of a home. Houses and their rooms are indeed subject to ownership. Because it is typically the largest and most well-appointed bedroom, it is usually occupied by the heads of the household. These “masters” of the home include millions of black, hispanic, and Asian owners as well as white ones. There is no racial content to its current use. No one becomes a slave owner or justifies slavery by having — or talking about — a master bedroom.

While “master” does imply control or dominance, that is not always a bad thing. We might call someone a kung fu master or say that we have mastered the art of playing the flute. We might speak of old masters in an art history class. We get Masters’ degrees from universities. In none of these cases is anyone referring to, much less engaging in or encouraging, racial dominance. The idea that the term “master bedroom” must and can only refer to the historical phenomenon of race-based slavery in the United States, and somehow perpetuates or endorses it, is an idiocy. How has this crazy idea gotten so far, finding its way into the anodyne pages of House Beautiful? It has no basis in common sense, communication studies, semantics, linguistics or anthropology.

What’s worse, the verbal avoidances demanded by these discoveries are pointless. If white people start saying “primary bedroom” instead of “master bedroom” it does not make life in black neighborhoods safer or better or people of different races more equal. Nor will it change the direction of any white person’s brain whenever it teeters on the edge of racial bias.

The melody “turkey in the straw” was appropriated in 1916 by a racist entertainer, Harry C Browne, who created lyrics for it that were deeply insulting to blacks. But it’s also clear that the tune predated that usage by decades, possibly centuries. Hundreds of other people made use of the song for non-racist purposes, including contemporaries of Browne. The melody is innocent. Yet now we hear about the “racist origins” of the tune, even though the 1916 recording was not its origin. The re-discovery of Browne’s recording is leading some to the conclusion that playing the tune, even without the racist words, is racist.

This is a truly bizarre theory of meaning. In today’s America it is far more likely to mean ice cream trucks than Harry C. Browne.

Devin Walker has enlightened us with this reminder of how explicitly racist popular culture could be 100 years ago. Awareness of those stereotypes and prejudices can be eye-opening and valuable it if inspires people to overcome them. But somehow, these discoveries have been transformed into a belief that re-programing the soundtrack of ice cream trucks helps combat racism. It doesn’t. There is no harm in ice cream trucks updating their repertoire, either — it may be long overdue — but no one should fall prey to the illusion that abandoning the melody of turkey in the straw advances racial justice, or that playing it somehow promotes racism.

Likewise, refusing to say “master bedroom” or “fuzzy-wuzzy” does not make me, a white man, more likely to overcome implicit bias in my interactions on the street. It does not make me more likely to buy a home in a predominantly black neighborhood or vote for a black politician. Yet those are the kinds of behaviors that matter, not toeing a semantic line.

Racial inequalities in the real world are not founded upon or perpetuated by unknown and unintended references to things that happened a century ago. They are reproduced in direct behavioral interactions between blacks and whites, and through economic disadvantages. When racial injustices are propped up by language, it is through direct, intentional words and actions.

Racism is morally wrong and produces inherently unfair social outcomes, so it is important to recognize racist acts and racist talk when they occur. But when the lexicon of “racist slurs” is unduly inflated, when it becomes an escalating game of gotcha, we are not on a constructive path. By focusing on specific words, melodies or images and pretending that using (or avoiding) them holds the key to anti-racism, we are substituting a checklist for real enlightenment. Conformity to a list of banned words is easy, which is why we see so many mainstream corporations quickly falling into line on these taboos. It’s virtue-signaling, that’s all. Living together with people of different cultures and races, on the other hand, requires ongoing change and effort.

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

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