Open discussion- Racial slurs: Are they necessary?

Happy Saturday, folks! I pray that your week was awesome. We had a good week here at Diversity Between the Pages. On Monday, we shared an author interview with Bonnie Engstrom; Wednesday, Jamie shared a book spotlight for one of Lynn Austin’s books; and Friday, Katie shared a review of The Bedwarmer’s Son. So you know what that means…yep, open discussion time!

Today’s question is a touchy one, so please be on your p’s and q’s. I want to ask if racial slurs in historical fiction (or any genre really) are ever necessary?

We all know that Mark Twain used racial slurs in his novels. I’ve heard the disclaimers that it was realistic for that time. I’ve also seen reprints or adaptions that have removed all derogatory slurs.

So what say you? Do racial slurs add authenticity to a work of fiction or is it adding to the dissension between minorities and majority ethnicities? Also, is it worse when written by a majority race versus a person from that ethnic background?


Open discussion post by Toni Shiloh

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14 thoughts on “Open discussion- Racial slurs: Are they necessary?

  1. Oh boy. I had to address and confront this very question when writing my 1930s series. Especially with the use of the word “negro” (not the big “n” word, mind you…that I worked around because I don’t even feel comfortable spelling it). What I found was that in the 1930s, calling someone “black” was more offensive than the word “negro”. Also, “African-American” would be an anachronism.

    Honestly, I agonized over the use of the word. My very last desire was to hurt anyone with the use of a word that could be seen as derogatory. On the other hand, I needed to be true to history (even if history wasn’t cute and kind). Ultimately, I made the decision to write a note in the front of the book to explain the usage. I didn’t go into it blindly, though. I had a heart-to-heart with a friend who happens to have brown skin to get a feel of how she would take reading the word. She’s an honest friend who isn’t afraid to speak truth.

    I didn’t use the word gratuitously and I didn’t glorify the prejudice of the era. In fact, I pointed at it so readers could witness it and perhaps address their own hidden attitudes toward those with different skin tone.

    Now, all that said, I found it necessary for a character to use the “N” word in order to reflect the dehumanizing attitude of many at that time. Instead of writing the word out, I described it using my protagonist’s voice (she’s hearing the word). She knows it’s bad and that she would get in BIG trouble for using it. Then she learns why it’s wrong and what it means. For my protagonist, it’s another coming-of-age moment…and perhaps my readers are growing along with her in that scene.

    Thank you for opening up this discussion. I’m eager to hear what others think.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you so much for joining the conversation. I know historical writers have to make the choice if they’re going to use it or not. I like how you had your protagonist hear the word versus spelling it out. I admit, it gets under my skin when I read it. It’s something I wish could be stricken from the English language. However, I know people used it in the past and continue to do so. Thank you for writing a note to your readers. Sometimes that’s the best way to avoid any possible offensive, by just pointing it out and explaining the use behind it.

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  2. I personally would never use them especially because I am not a minority and feel it would be really disrespectful. They jar me every time i hear or see them, hurting my soul. I can’t even imagine what it must feel like to have one used against you. That said…i guess if you wanted to be authentic to a horrible character and you’re okay with that jarring reaction, fine, but i would never add something to my manuscript that would be viewed as highly offensive in a light, humorous, or casual way.

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    1. Jarring is such a great word choice, because that’s exactly how it feels. It stops you in your track. I know there are some authors who want to jar the readers and dig under the skin. Some believe a strong reaction is better than a lack of one. I’m curious, do you think it’s okay to joke and use a slur describing your own race? Maybe I should have added that to the overall discussion, lol.

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      1. Sometimes i jokingly call myself a gringa but that’s not really a strong slur anyway. When others have used it towards me jokingly or not in a mean way, it hasn’t bothered me but when it was used derogatorily, I felt bad.

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    2. I couldn’t do it. And if I read “the N word” in a book, as you say, it would “jar” me, not just making me see a character as evil, but actually distracting me and taking me out of the story.
      As for whether or not a racial slur is acceptable when it is used by a person of the specific race… we live on a campus for “troubled boys”, most of whom are black. They use that word frequently, and it is part of their specific culture. That culture is destructive and part of the worldview that caused these boys to end up here. There’s a reason most of the world sees it as a “slur” and not just a cultural descriptor.

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      1. I don’t use it at all. I can’t see using something derogatory for “good.” I don’t think it’s possible. It tears people down like all slurs and curse words.

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  3. This is such a hard question my friend. I hate that word….This week we watched the movie Fences with Denzel Washington. He used the N word over and over, I cringed every time I heard it. For historical fiction, I really debate about its use. We don’t want to offend and perpetuate, but are we glossing over history by not showing just how bad things were? I always remember the saying, if we don’t learn from history we are doomed to repeat it. I don’t think we should gloss history over – we should learn from and and discuss it with our children and grandchildren. That said, if we can get the point of history across without using it, it should be avoided.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Such a great questions! “Are we glossing over history by not showing just how bad things were?” Learning from history is vital! If we don’t learn from it, teach our children to do better, than what our ancestors went through is all for not. I think that portraying history accurately is important, but we have to use wisdom in doing so. There comes a point where excessive use of slurs become detrimental instead of educational.

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  4. My N word for the N word is NEVER. I pray I never read another Christian’s book with that word in it. The word is horrible enough that it shouldn’t even be used by fictional characters. The offense it will bring is not worth the realism that I have heard writers claim it will give their characters. I think that using that word tells me more about the character of the writer than the character in the book, that you would possibly offend another believer for the sake of making a character realistic. NEVER.

    The word doesn’t need to be used. If you want to show me how blackhearted and deplorable someone is, be creative and find another way. As someone who has been called the N-word by racists, this goes beyond jarring. It’s painful. A knife to the heart coming from people claiming to love Christ.

    I would also like to know, as a minority, who deemed that word as “realistic?” I would love for someone to answer that question. So the only way to make a person realistically racist is to use that word? I have seen some many other forms of racism that don’t involve using the N-word (my personal favorite is refusing to acknowledge a black person’s existence).

    Never. Please, never. I beg you. It’s not okay along with any other racial slurs that others used. Let’s remove that word from the Body of Christ. Never. Please.

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    1. Love this, Terri. It goes hand in hand with eliminating curse words in Christian fiction. You don’t have to write the word for the reader to get the idea, but yet some authors say they want it to be realistic. Do you think they’re just not being creative enough?

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      1. Yes, it is very much profane for a Christian. I’ve never heard it used from the pulpit of a church and if Christian fiction is full of life and hope that comes from the Gospel, I think we should treat it as a pulpit.

        As for creativity, I can’t speak to that. But I do think writers who feel that racial slurs are the only way to achieve realism rely too heavily on them for characterization. There are multiple ways to characterize. Choice of words and dialogue are two, but there is more to a character than what he or she says.

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  5. This is a really interesting discussion for me, because growing up in Australia, I never really came across the ‘N’ word in my childhood. Somewhere along the line I found out that was the word used in that ‘eeny, meeny, miny, mo’ rhyme, and we weren’t allowed to say it anymore, but it was all a bit vague for me because I didn’t understand what the word meant anyway. I’d never heard it in any other context, nor did I really understand the history associated with it. Obviously as I got older my understanding grew, but my aversion to the term is still a learned response rather than an instinctive one, if that makes sense.

    As for its use in fiction, I cringe, but I don’t have as strong a reaction to it as some people do. Reading these comments has me looking at the topic with new understanding, however. I’m not in favour of censoring books written in that time period (for example The Adventures of Tom Sawyer). I think it’s important that we are honest about the past so that we can grow and learn from it. But when it causes such strong offence as has been expressed here, I don’t think I could justify using it in fiction books published today.

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