The line between pithy and insensitive

I could have made the mistake myself.

As a columnist, you try to go for the clever turn of phrase, the pithy statement, the play on words. You are supposed to be opinionated.

Myriam Marquez was writing her weekly column and began it by recounting the painful story of having been responsible as a child for her father being deported to Cuba because he was here illegally.

“I share this personal moment,” she wrote, “because it aches to see what’s happening in Arizona and throughout much of the nation, including Florida where GOP politicians will say anything to earn `whitey’ points with Tea Party voters.”

“Whitey” points?

Marquez had hit on a clever play to the phrase “Brownie points.” In a note to me later, Marquez said brownie “would not have worked in the context of the sentence because the Arizona law is not appealing to many Latinos, who self-identify as `brown’.” To just say “earn points” also failed to convey the Latino backlash over the law, she said.

Some readers, however, had a different take. They were incensed. They called her newly minted phrase a divisive racial slur equal to any of a number of ones used in reference to blacks, Hispanics, Asians and other groups.

“As long as people feel the justification and privilege to use those terms, even directed at white people, then we fail to progress,” wrote one reader, David Johnson, in a particularly thoughtful exchange. “You know that denigrating the viewpoints of minorities based on their ethnicity is a hallmark of a racist. [But] a Hispanic or African American who suffers discrimination is equally capable of being a discriminator.

“Racism is not a white man’s disease. It is a human condition,” he wrote.

But now comes a twist. “You are right,” Marquez wrote back, “racism does come in all colors and I did push the envelope with that reference. Perhaps it’s because I’m white and don’t feel threatened by it.”

Marquez, in other words, is Hispanic but racially white, suggesting that perhaps she has a free pass to say “whitey,” much the way black rap artists use slurs to refer to their race.

Johnson was having none of it. “I understand your perspective,” he said. “However, the point remains that racism is insidious in the fact that it hides in everyone. I am white therefore using whitey was not offensive. I am black therefore using the N word is not offensive.”

Marquez still defended herself. Posting a note online, she said that “as a columnist, I do like to use powerful words” and that “whitey” is a word that she uses only “sparingly.”

In response to a question from me as to whether the “same standards” should apply anyway in referring to whites as to any other racial or ethnic group, she said: “Yes . . . though I feel strongly that the N word cannot be compared to `whitey.’ Only black Americans faced centuries of slavery and, even after slavery’s official end, another century of laws meant to disenfranchise them and legal standards, particularly in the South, that allowed lynchings with impunity. That’s a big distinction.”

A small minority of online posters agreed with her. Marquez notes that Whitey is even a name, as in the former great New York Yankees pitcher Whitey Ford. She didn’t mean to insult anyone, she told me.

I sent the Marquez column to Arlene Morgan, associate dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and director of an annual workshop on journalism, race and ethnicity. She is my touchstone on these matters. She wrote back: “I think any slur regarding any racial or ethnic group — and that certainly includes white people — is offensive. Would we say Black points or Asian points? Absolutely not. The same standard should apply to white people. Don’t we have enough hostility and division without the press adding to it?”

I must confess that as a Hispanic, I have used racially and ethnically charged terms in recent years to refer to myself, and I have quoted them when said by others. I have done so as a verbal shock tactic in condemning discrimination, and perhaps subconsciously to play catch-up with the free-wheeling Internet culture. I understand the temptation Marquez faced, but in the past year, in writing a column for the Washington Post Writers Group which refuses any use of such words, I have come to accept that I was wrong.

Where to draw the line as to which terms are offensive can be a fluid exercise. Political correctness can run amok.

But that some readers were offended provides a clear answer as to where the line should be drawn on “whitey.” The United States has racial issues, but in world history, it is one of the rare successes in mixing races and ethnicities precisely because we value and respect diversity. Non-Hispanic whites are not even a majority in South Florida.

Marquez said that “in hindsight” she should have left out “whitey” because it has diverted attention from the Arizona law. But she still maintains that it is not the same as the N word and that she does not need to apologize. I know her to be an ethical, principled and well-meaning person. In this case, she is wrong.

This column was originally published in The Miami Herald on June 13, 2010.
Comments are closed.