Racial offence is in a different league to most kinds of contentious language and we should make no apologies for doing our best to avoid causing it.
Difficult words that can only be used by those they should hurt
There is a lot I admire about the great French city of Marseille. For a start, the cultural mix is so rich that it seems not to be French at all, but to belong to the world. Along the smart Canebière boulevard a little over a week ago, I passed a young couple. She was white, he was black. This is not an exceptional sight in a city that handles community relations better than most. But while both were dressed causally, the young man's T-shirt bore the slogan "Negro attitude".
A reassuring feature of civilised society is that no reasonably sensitive person who is not black would these days write the word Negro without first thinking very carefully. Not even irony, or some well-meaning usage intended to promote racial harmony or attack intolerance, would necessarily be seen as a complete defence. I have plenty of quarrels with people who seek to cleanse the English language of anything that might somehow cause the least offence, and certainly intend to convey disapproval if I talk of something being politically correct or incorrect. But racial offence is in a different league to most kinds of contentious language and we should make no apologies for doing our best to avoid causing it.
This young man was black and therefore, we can argue, entitled to use the word if he so wished. Yet I was still taken aback slightly; the logical extension of recognising his right to freedom of expression was to say that he could have worn his top with Negro replaced in the slogan by nigger. Who would defend that word? Even my copy of Bartlett's Dictionary of Americanisms, presented to me by colleagues when I left Abu Dhabi in March but published in 1877, long before political correctness swept the western world, described it as "the vulgar pronunciation of Negro".
It is difficult to identify any acceptable use of nigger, but not impossible. Surely the launch editor of The National and I were right to rule, some time ago, that a successful black US sportsman's interview should not be altered to eliminate his own use of the word. He had made a quite deliberate choice of phrase to illustrate, with striking effect, the nature of some white American opinion. He, too, was in control of his language and it did not seem our place to "correct" him even though, as another senior colleague pointed out, the word seems so obnoxious that many non-black people would bind themselves in verbal knots before using "niggardly" because of the way the first six letters of that otherwise blameless word sound.
That same 1877 dictionary has just over two pages of words and phrases deriving from Negro, ranging from Negro-catcher, for men engaged during the American civil war in "catching and stealing" slaves, to Negrophilism, "a name reproachfully given to anti-slavery", and, on the same repugnant theme, a Negro-worshipper as "an opposer of slavery". While it would be unfair to present these usages and definitions as anything other than products of their time, it is worth bearing in mind that the US civil war, fought between North and South over slavery, had been about a practice abolished 12 years before my edition of John Russell Bartlett's reference book appeared.
It may be that he simply had insufficient time to amend the entries to reflect the new order established, since it was first published before that war began. But if we can claim to have moved on considerably since those days, we clearly have not moved far enough to dissuade that young man in France's second city from using everyday dress to make his own racial statement. Colin Randall is a contributing editor to The National and may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org