Roger Stone by Victoria Pickering. License By CC 3.0

When Is A Word A Racial Slur? Roger Stone Hits Black Radio Host Mo’Kelly With “N-Word Lite”

Roger Stone, a Trump adviser who just skated away from punishment by President Trump’s recent pardon, allegedly called Morris O’Kelly, better known as Mo’Kelly, a “Negro” on a live talk radio interview this weekend.

It happened on KFI AM 640, a Southern California station, as Mo’Kelly insisted that Stone’s reprieve happened because of hid association with President Trump, rather than the fact that the justice system was stacked against him, as Stone had claimed.

Kelly, known as Mr. Mo’Kelly on Twitter, had this to say about the incident:

“Hey everyone. I heard what I heard. The audio is the audio. I will address in Hour 2. We’re blowing out the second half of the show. #RogerStone I am nobody’s NEGRO.”

Negro derives from the now-disproven race theory, and “denote[s] persons considered to be of the Negroid heritage.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Negro) According to Wikipedia “Negro superseded colored as the most polite word for African Americans at a time when black was considered more offensive.” Usage changes with time; it’s a fact.

As the two discussed why Stone was pardoned, Mo’Kelly offered this:

“I do believe that certain people are treated differently in the Federal Justice System. But I also do believe that your friendship and relationship and history with Donald Trump weighed more heavily than him just wanting to make sure justice was done…There are thousands of people treated unfairly daily. Hell, your number just happened to come up in the lottery…I’m guessing it was more than just luck, Roger, right?”

Roger Stone’s response was muffled, as though he were speaking with someone other than Mo’Kelly, whom he was on a phone call with.

“I really don’t feel like arguing with this Negro,” could clearly be heard.

Mo’Kelly seemed dumbstruck, himself responding with, “Roger? I’m sorry, what did you say? I’m sorry,you’re arguing with whom? I thought we were just having a very spirited conversation. Would you not like to continue the conversation, sir? I hear that the line is not dead.”

Stone would not own up to saying this, instead blaming the phone for breaking up, saying and afterwards, at the end of an awkward silence, said “Uhh, you’re back” and later insisted Mo’Kelly was “out of [his] mind” when Kelly asked Stone what he had just said.

The entirety of the 31 minute interview is available at MrMoKelly.com.

Mo’Kelly, in a blog entry later that day (http://mrmokelly.com/2020/07/roger_stone_mokelly/) wrote “Aint this some shit…He didn’t see me as a journalist, not as a professional, not a radio host…but a “Negro” first and foremost. Thirty years as an entertainment professional, twenty of them in radio. “Negro” was the first pejorative uttered. The low-calorie version of the N-Word. ”

There’s no denying that Roger Stone was wrong for saying this. If he had instead substituted the phrase “Black man” for “Negro,” the results would be the same. The conversation was shut down, and the interviewer’s racial identity was brought to the fore, though it was totally irrelevant.

Had the interviewer treated Mr. Stone unfairly because he was White, and made such clear by saying so, bringing up the racial identity of the interviewer by Mr. Stone in a tit-for-tat response would have still been inappropriate, and Mr. Stone’s choice of words would yet have been of primary consequence. But this did not happen; Mr. Kelly was respectful and did no such thing.

If Roger Stone had instead been interviewed by a member of another ethnic, religious, or racial identity group, and responses as he did, saying “I really don’t feel like arguing with this Jew/Muslim/WASP/Italian/Armenian/Irishman/Latino” it would be no better. It’s not about the word “Negro,” it’s about respect and civility.

Of course, this reflects poorly on President Trump. Mr. Stone should have been considering this, the President having used his influence and power to help get Stone off the hook, whether Stone was guilty or not. He failed President Trump; there should be no doubt in your mind. He repaid a monumental favor with a huge disservice. A giant slap in the face.

An interviewer is expected to ask hardball questions; that’s just par for the course. That Stone became so easily uncomfortable speaks volumes.

This was wrong on Roger Stone’s part. And, without a doubt, totally inappropriate, indicative of how Mr. Stone feels and thinks, no matter how much he denies it.

But we can, without reservation, argue that the word “Negro” is NOT the “N-word lite,” but just another word. While this is a different issue, it’s still worth exploring.

After all, there’s the United Negro College Fund, The National Council of Negro Women, The Catholic Negro American Mission Board, and other institutions that exist, to this day, swerving Black people in the United States.

Mo’Kelly does have a point, though: The “N word” is really just a local dialectal pronunciation of the word Negro, so the two words are connected, historically. It’s first use in recorded language occurred in 1587, spelled as “Negar.”

According to the Anti-Defamation League Anti-Bias Study Guide published in 1998, the word probably originated as a local pronunciation of “Negro” in northern England and Ireland.

Likewise, in the U.S. South, the “N word”  might have simply been a dialectal pronunciation of  “Negro,” considering that so many other words are non-rhotic, meaning there is no final letter “R” when such words ending in this consonant are spoken, and even words ending in vowels are clipped.

As far the the “e” turning into an “i,” speakers of Southern dialects also routinely pronounce  longer vowels. These elements, and others, contribute to the well recognized “Southern drawl.”

Meanwhile, most of us hear the “N-word” blaring out of car stereos all day long on the streets of Staten Island, each and every day. And, that’s fine. It’s a free country.

But is it really acceptable to limit language options for a selected group? If a word is verboten, like the “f-word” when we’re six, should it then be off-limits to one and all?

This perplexing situation boggles the mind and only serves to create arbitrary standards of free expression amongst the population.

Of course, none of this excuses Roger Stone’s halting of the interview and referring to the Black host in the manner which he did.

But it does raise other, interesting questions. Questions that many people think about silently, but are never brought to light.

Questions kept hidden, well concealed beneath a veneer of propriety, lest anyone step into territory that would warrant a pink slip.

How can some words be acceptable to speak and write in some contexts, but not in others? Can we really ascribe notions of bias to language in the way that we do as legitimate attempts at fostering equality, or are these feeble posturings of political correctness, and nothing more?

The “N word” is often not even written in most places, while more liberal blogs and news outlets defiantly print the “F word,” “The S word,” and any other scatological word they see fit.

What about when reviewing a new rap music song? One that contains the dreaded “N word?” Is it then acceptable to print, or is it still an issue? Dilemmas, dilemmas…

Some claim that “nigga” is not “nigger.” Is this valid argumentation? H. Lewis Smith, author of Bury That Sucka: A Scandalous Love Affair with the N-word subscribes to this theory. However, leading Black authorities do not necessarily agree.

The African American Registry dissents, claiming “Brother (Brotha) and Sister (Sistah or Sista) are terms of endearment. Nigger was and still is a word of disrespect.”

The NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), a perhaps the most well known civil rights group advocating for Black equality, shuns and and all use of both “nigga” and “nigger.”

Even so, Black rap artists are going to continue using the word.

On Staten Island, in NYC, and in communities beyond our city, many people use this word as part of their vernacular. Black people often call other Black people this word. Black people at times refer to non-Black people in this manner.

Sometimes, you’ll even hear non-Black people using this word for other non-Black people, or even Black friends. It’s been this way since the 90s. It’s not going to stop. It’s often used as a term of endearment. Sometimes it’s also used just to refer to another person, instead of saying “dude” or “babe.”

Perhaps it’s a class thing.

But then, you hear a solidly middle class White kid saying it, and that theory’s busted. Is it okay if you live in the ‘hood? Not okay if you’re from Westchester?

Perhaps it’s just endearment and respect for, and emulation of, Black culture. This seems most likely.

While this is considered controversial, is it really? Can a word be acceptable language for one group and not another? Can we really be held to disparate standards and still be considered equal? Freedom of expression is more than an American value, it’s our right under the law.

Does that give Roger Stone a pass in this instance? I think most of us, whether Red or Blue, Black or White or Brown, would agree, “F**k, no!”

Roger Stone by Victoria Pickering. License By CC 3.0

Roger Stone by Victoria Pickering. License By CC 3.0

If we look to how the Federal government handles the “n word” word in other areas, the U.S. Patent and Trademark office does not permit registration of words or phrases that have been considered derogatory to a specific ethnic or racial group.

Comedian Damon Wayans tried trademarking a brand he was working on as “Nigga.” The PTO’s response?

“The very fact that debate is ongoing regarding in-[ethnic]-group usage, shows that a substantial composite of African Americans find the term ‘nigga’ to be offensive.”

So is that the final word? Unfortunately, no.

Pulitzer Nominee Laurie Sheck, professor of creative writing at the esteemed New School in Manhattan, was accused of racism in 2016. You’re probably wondering why.

She asked her students to think. That’s what a good instructor does. (It’s getting rarer and rarer these days, many claim!)

James Baldwin, in a 1963 PBS statement, said “I’m not a nigger.” When a documentary was made in 2016, it was entitled I Am Not Your Negro.

Sheck wanted her students to consider why it was considered acceptable to take license with Baldwin’s words. James Baldwin was a noted Black author, and chose his words carefully, no doubt. And so, it’s a fair question.

But…Sheck had failed to self-censor and say “N word,” instead speaking the detestable word “nigger” aloud in a classroom. During intellectual discourse, we should be allowed to speak and discuss freely. After all, her words were not meant to harm or bring indignity upon anyone, but rather to get her students to consider the most fundamentally important questions about race and equality.

Eventually, Sheck was let off the hook, but not after having been raked over the proverbial coals by her university. The word was used in a clinical and objective manner, itself being placed under the microscope of reason, as it were, and not as a racial slur or a means of denigrating anyone. Should this make a difference?

These are all questions we must consider, in this increasingly divided nation. What’s appropriate? What’s not?

And, who can really say?

What about NWA, or Niggas With Attitude, the late 80s Compton hip-hop group? Shall we refer to them hereafter as “N words with attitude?”

What about the use of the “N word” in Quentin Tarantino’s film ‘Pulp Fiction”? Should those references, along with all others in film and popular music, be bleeped out?

Is there a risk in doing this? Will we eventually end up with a gutted language, or a language with some words that as acceptable for some to use sometimes, and other words that are never acceptable for others to use, any time?

It’s all about context. If I call my Italian friend “gumba” or “paisan,” it’s not the same as someone calling him that after cutting him off in traffic. I doubt there’s any situation where he’d relish being called “Fredo,” however. Chris Cuomo was right. That was just a “dis,” one laden with biased overtones. (See our article on this topic: Am I the Only One Who Thinks Calling Chris Cuomo “Fredo” Was Wrong?)

The difference is, cancel culture does not extend to protecting Italian-Americans in this way. Perhaps it should.

My personal feelings? We’re on a slippery slope, leading toward an America where we all self-censor for fear of repercussions, a place where no one feels free to speak their mind.

Words do matter. But so does context. All-or-nothing rules smack of authoritarian top-down edicts, and no American should welcome that, Black, White, or any other color.

We should most be concerned about meaning, what one has to say and why they’re saying it.

In this case, Roger Stone was clear. Had he substituted Black for Negro, the meaning would have been no less cringeworhty.

What about Mark Twain as he was called, or Samuel L. Clemens as he was named? He used the “n word.” Now his books, which featured inter-racial friendships before that was even a thing, are banned. Shouldn’t context matter?

Cancel culture is bad enough; it’s worse when cancellation happens at the mere utterance of a forbidden word. If we’re going to consider canning someone for life, at least let it be for something meaningful.

What’s bad? Taboo words are bad, not because they’re intrinsically poisoned or poisoning pejoratives, but because there exists a taboo, in the first place.

Langston Hughes’, celebrated African-American poet who even has a Google Doodle honoring him, recipient of numerous awards both for his writing and his advancement of the Black Rights cause, had this to say about the matter in Big Sea, published in 1940:

“Used rightly or wrongly, ironically or seriously, of necessity for the sake of realism, or impishly for the sake of comedy, it doesn’t matter. Negroes do not like it in any book or play whatsoever, be the book or play ever so sympathetic in its treatment of the basic problems of the race. Even though the book or play is written by a Negro, they still do not like it. The word nigger, you see, sums up for us who are colored all the bitter years of insult and struggle in America.”

And so, there exist a variety of viewpoints from renowned Black people, some ideas diametrically opposed. What we can observe from all this is that there is far from universal agreement on the topic, even among scholars of the Black Experience.

So, what should we say? What should we not say? What can be written? What cannot? My advice: Do what you feel. Live and act with integrity, and let respect for others guide your words and deeds. It’s still a free country, and we’re entitled to think, and speak, as we choose. But always do so with compassion. That is all.

 

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