I didn't even think twice about it. But then someone told me they were pretty much stunned that I had used the word "wetback" in a joke on the Pulp yesterday.
"Do you even know how many Hispanic journalists read your blog?" this person said. "I cringed for you."
This person said the use of that word was completely inappropriate, no matter what context. I might as well have used the n-word in jest while I was at it, they said.
I laughed it off at first. Hell, such a reaction was more indicative of racist tendencies than
anything I'd written. I mean, it was a joke, an absurd one at that. What newspaper would ever use that term in a headline? The truth is that I detest that word, just as I do any word that demeans any group of people. I'm a huge believer in the power of the individual -- and I've known great people from all races, religions, ethnicities, sexual orientations, you name it (except albinos, never met a good albino) -- and that just doesn't jibe with stupid stereotypes. Basically, my motto is the only thing we have to hate is hate itself (well, that and the MTV music video awards).
That's why I'd never use that word in normal conversation. But the blog is a creative space, not to be taken too literally. It's a place, I hope, where the taboo is fair game, so long as it comes from an honest place. Sort of like the best nightclub humor (Richard Pryor first and foremost). Basically, I thought it was funny so I used it. But I have to admit I started to worry a little about it after that complaint. Was a dubious joke like that worth hurting innocent people or adding to the ignorance and stupidity that's already out there? Another question arose: Is that a word that simply shouldn't be used anywhere? Is it like the n-word? For that matter, is the n-word really like the n-word? By that I mean, even that word has gained popular acceptance, at least among blacks and some whites (Eminem, to use one ridiculous example, has used it in lyrics and, I'm sure, often in real life). I suppose it's "reclaiming" the word from slavemasters and racists or something, but I'm not sure it does anybody any good. Another word in that realm is "fag." When I was a kid, I hated that term because it was used only by little bigots. Now it's everywhere -- another reclamation act, I suppose.
I don't know. I like the idea of stripping words of their power by using them in ironic or humorous ways. They are just words after all. And in some cases, say a parody or a fictional stuff, you might need to use them for realism or to make a useful point. At the same time, I find the idea of increasing the callousness of society by using them at all a bit troubling. It's a balancing act with no hard rule. Overall, I definitely straddled the line in this case, but I don't think I crossed it. Do you?