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Is There A Difference Between Racist And Racial?

February 3, 2014

My best friend is 6’5″. He’s a brilliant programmer, a very funny guy and he’s also Black. We are like brothers. One day we were discussing race and racism.

CK, can a white person ever say the n-word without it being offensive?

He paused for only a moment.

You could call me that.

Not when anyone else was around, I couldn’t!

He misunderstood my question, but got the point. Has that word, which you all know and I’m not going to write, become so offensive that even in a discussion of word origins and meanings a white person cannot utter the word without it being offensive?

In business, of course, the best option is to avoid any possibility of offense. Stay way away from the line and you don’t risk going over it. The topic has been on my mind recently as I’ve considered a speech I’m going to give to my Toastmasters club. I’m working on a speech that retells a folk tale. Rather than retelling something from Grimm’s fairy tales, which are surprisingly dark, I opted from something from Joel Chandler Harris.

Harris was a newspaper writer in the late 19th Century. He collected a series of stories from Blacks working in the cotton fields. The stories, while closely tied to the American South, trace their origins to African folk tales. His book was called Uncle Remus: His Songs and Sayings. Disney did an adaptation of it in 1946 called Song Of the South.

The collection of stories I have is called Giant Treasury of Brer Rabbit.


Uncle Remus has been banished to the 1880’s. The modern translation skips the entire story of Uncle Remus, a kindly old slave telling the stories to a young white boy from “the big house.”

And therein lies my dilemma, or question. Are the stories themselves racist or even racial? Can we separate the stories’ origins from their message? Disney couldn’t. Song of the South will never be released on DVD or BlueRay. Disney simply cannot find a way to make it socially paletable.

Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, is one of the most banned books in history. It uses the n-word liberally.
And yet, the book itself is clearly anti-slavery. Twain allows Jim, the “escaped slave” to become involved in many of Huck’s adventures only to reveal at the end that Jim has been free all along. Twain forces us to confront the prejudices of the scenes and how the simple designation of free or slave changes the meanings, without changing the setting or characters.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin is another contemporary book that used language that we today find uncomfortable. In reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin, I couldn’t find a single instance where the narrator used the n-word to refer to characters of African descent. Harriet Beecher Stowe put that word into the mouths of her characters, but not her own.

The Brer Rabbit stories in my book, of course not only don’t use the n-word, they don’t even have any people. The action is all carried out by Brer Rabbit, his nemisis Brer Fox, the wiser-than-he-seems Brer Bear and a host of other characters.

But, is it possible to pull the story out of environment? Is it a disservice to tell the story without giving a context? Do the stories belong now to all Americans regardless of color? Or, am I applying some sort of literary black-face if I endeavor to retell them? I am after all, putting myself into the role of Uncle Remus. Despite the 20th Century editing, these stories trace their origin to the stereotype of a “happy slave” performing for the “young master.”

I have a couple of weeks before the speech, but considering that I first heard these stories when I was 10 years old and my mom bought the Song of The South soundtrack, I’m not sure another week or two is going to get me any closer to a clear mind.

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife and thirteen children.

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