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View Full Version : Is it ever okay to use racial name-calling in a manuscript?



CathleenT
02-08-2015, 07:05 AM
I'd like to make it very clear that I disapprove of derogatory names being applied to anybody, for any reason.

In my manuscript, which is a historical fantasy set in the 1930s, I have a group of kids who've banded together in high school. A new kid, who's black, enrolls, and they interrupt some intimidation going on. The kids are Irish, Italian, Jewish, and Californio (who will be seen as Mexican).

Anyway, the antagonist calls them all the common racial slurs for that era, and I have my protagonist make fun of him.

The point was, I wanted to show that racial name-calling is not only wrong (because those who engage in it anyway don't care), but that it makes you look stupid, too.

If it will help, I'll post a few paragraphs from the novel.

I don't want to be offensive, but I would like to make the point. And it's unreasonable that an Irish kid wouldn't be called a mick, as an example. It was respectable to marginalize non-WASPs at that time (as everyone here probably knows very well).

It's the only place in the novel where I actually use the terms (the rest of it is described in oblique terms in the narration).

Any feedback on this would be greatly appreciated. :)

cornflake
02-08-2015, 07:12 AM
I'd like to make it very clear that I disapprove of derogatory names being applied to anybody, for any reason.

In my manuscript, which is a historical fantasy set in the 1930s, I have a group of kids who've banded together in high school. A new kid, who's black, enrolls, and they interrupt some intimidation going on. The kids are Irish, Italian, Jewish, and Californio (who will be seen as Mexican).

Anyway, the antagonist calls them all the common racial slurs for that era, and I have my protagonist make fun of him.

The point was, I wanted to show that racial name-calling is not only wrong (because those who engage in it anyway don't care), but that it makes you look stupid, too.

If it will help, I'll post a few paragraphs from the novel.

I don't want to be offensive, but I would like to make the point. And it's unreasonable that an Irish kid wouldn't be called a mick, as an example. It was respectable to marginalize non-WASPs at that time (as everyone here probably knows very well).

It's the only place in the novel where I actually use the terms (the rest of it is described in oblique terms in the narration).

Any feedback on this would be greatly appreciated. :)

Of course it's ok. What is offensive now was not at other times and vice versa, and regardless if it's offensive or not, if it belongs in the story, it does.

I personally don't love the modern idea that the only characters in historical novels that use what we consider to be racial or ethnic slurs currently need to be shown to be 'bad,' either, but that's neither here nor there really.

kuwisdelu
02-08-2015, 07:14 AM
Nothing wrong with that.

Little Ming
02-08-2015, 07:19 AM
Be true to your characters and story. If they use racial slurs, so be it.


I'd like to make it very clear that I disapprove of derogatory names being applied to anybody, for any reason.

In my manuscript, which is a historical fantasy set in the 1930s, I have a group of kids who've banded together in high school. A new kid, who's black, enrolls, and they interrupt some intimidation going on. The kids are Irish, Italian, Jewish, and Californio (who will be seen as Mexican).

Anyway, the antagonist calls them all the common racial slurs for that era, and I have my protagonist make fun of him.

The point was, I wanted to show that racial name-calling is not only wrong (because those who engage in it anyway don't care), but that it makes you look stupid, too.

If it will help, I'll post a few paragraphs from the novel.

I don't want to be offensive, but I would like to make the point. And it's unreasonable that an Irish kid wouldn't be called a mick, as an example. It was respectable to marginalize non-WASPs at that time (as everyone here probably knows very well).

It's the only place in the novel where I actually use the terms (the rest of it is described in oblique terms in the narration).

Any feedback on this would be greatly appreciated. :)

I'm actually more concerned the bolded part might come off too heavy-handed.

Ken
02-08-2015, 07:47 AM
... if you feel uncomfortable about using the terms in the scene and haven't anywhere else then maybe don't. It is not a requirement. You can do as you like. Just so you know ;-)

Of course what posters above have said also applies. Ultimately, your choice.

M.N Thorne
02-08-2015, 08:31 AM
Are Californios seen as Mexican during this time period? I always thought they would seen more Spaniard than Mexican. I believe that using racial and ethnic slurs would be used during that time period.





I'd like to make it very clear that I disapprove of derogatory names being applied to anybody, for any reason.

In my manuscript, which is a historical fantasy set in the 1930s, I have a group of kids who've banded together in high school. A new kid, who's black, enrolls, and they interrupt some intimidation going on. The kids are Irish, Italian, Jewish, and Californio (who will be seen as Mexican).

Anyway, the antagonist calls them all the common racial slurs for that era, and I have my protagonist make fun of him.

The point was, I wanted to show that racial name-calling is not only wrong (because those who engage in it anyway don't care), but that it makes you look stupid, too.

If it will help, I'll post a few paragraphs from the novel.

I don't want to be offensive, but I would like to make the point. And it's unreasonable that an Irish kid wouldn't be called a mick, as an example. It was respectable to marginalize non-WASPs at that time (as everyone here probably knows very well).

It's the only place in the novel where I actually use the terms (the rest of it is described in oblique terms in the narration).

Any feedback on this would be greatly appreciated. :)

beckethm
02-08-2015, 09:37 AM
Since I'm currently working on two stories set in the same time period, I can attest that racial slurs were used without a second thought by many, if not most white Americans (and by "white" I mean WASP). I've seen the "n-word" in everything from personal letters to radio transcripts to major newspapers. Offensive as it is to modern ears, it would seem strange to me not to see it crop up, along with slurs for the other groups you mention, in any book set before the 1950s that includes a diverse cast.

I'd be cautious about making your protagonist too enlightened for the era. If he finds racial slurs offensive, there probably needs to be some reason why he takes that view when everyone else uses them as a matter of course. And if he stands up and says the name-calling is wrong, I wouldn't expect him to have that big of an impact, when it was socially acceptable according to the mores of the time.

CathleenT
02-08-2015, 12:51 PM
Thanks for the feedback, everyone.

Patrick ended up befriending a family of Jews, because his girlfriend became friends with a Jewish girl, and it grew to include her whole family. There were actual Nazi rallies in the area I had my story take place (Tujunga Canyon), so I extended that to hazing of Jews at school. So he and Greta developed a dislike for anything Hitler thought was good, and they gradually made a group of friends that felt the same way, although there was a defection when Patrick invited Mexicans to join their group. But I don't show him starting some widespread movement.

And as recently as the Seventies in southern California, most white people didn't distinguish between Latino groups. They were all Mexicans. Or worse names.

Larry M
02-08-2015, 05:41 PM
It is also possible that people of that era, especially kids, could use such words without knowing what they meant.

For example, I recall as a kid in the late 1950's, while playing outside with friends, using this rhyme to pick the person that was 'it' in the game:

Eeny, meeny, miny, moe,
Catch a 'xxxxx' by the toe.
If he hollers, let him go,
Eeny, meeny, miny, moe.

I was about five years old at the time, and I was taught this chant by older boys in the neighborhood; boys that used the n-word in place of the 'xxxxx'.

One day, my Dad, who had grown up in the 1930's, heard us saying it, and he asked me if I knew what that word meant. When I said no, he explained it, and he suggested we use 'tiger' instead.

At five years old, I had no idea the word we were using was offensive to anyone; it was just a word in a rhyme.

I'm thinking it is possible such a thing could happen among kids in the time frame of your story as well.

ManInBlack
02-08-2015, 09:35 PM
It's worth noting that there will always be people who claim that just because your antagonist does something unsavory, you are also unsavory (at least if you reach a big enough audience) but if the quality of the work defends itself, I'd say you probably have nothing to worry about. As modern writers that often are more enlightened about certain topics than our predecessors, it is hard to look at them objectively (I could probably never have a character who used some of the heavier slurs openly and apologetically be the protagonist in one of my stories, even if it were set in the '90s when various homophobic slurs were part of every pre-teen's vocabulary) but it's also important that if you want to depict an era, your characters speak like they're from that era. Where to draw the line is ultimately based on what you're comfortable having your characters say and do based on how you want the audience to react to them.

NinjaFingers
02-08-2015, 09:37 PM
The trick is that you don't want to come over as approving of the use of slurs. As long as you don't, then...not a problem.

Richard K. Morgan's The Steel Remains contains many, many uses of the word "faggot". It's an extremely homophobic society (The penalty is a particularly horrible death). The use of the word keeps reminding the reader of the fact. Some people probably would find it offensive, but I don't.

Gringa
02-08-2015, 11:06 PM
I say go for it, don't hold back. But if you do, please try not to get preachy just for the heck of it, to overcompensate. Let the reader make up their own mind.

Marian Perera
02-09-2015, 01:56 AM
I say go for it, don't hold back. But if you do, please try not to get preachy just for the heck of it, to overcompensate.

Agree with this. Personally, I don't mind slurs being used by even likeable people as long as it's made clear this is one of their flaws (and if, despite their manner of speech, they go out of their way to treat people fairly, like Sikes's casual racism in Alien Nation). But at the same time, I'd rather not get a message about why this is wrong.

Lavern08
02-09-2015, 01:56 AM
Be true to your characters and story. If they use racial slurs, so be it.

Yeah that ^

Henri Bauholz
06-02-2015, 12:29 AM
Have you ever read Mark Twain?

beckethm
06-02-2015, 12:49 AM
Have you ever read Mark Twain?

This is a rather old thread, so maybe I shouldn't comment, but I have to say I don't find that a particularly relevant response. Twain used language that was commonplace in the time when he wrote. Most of the racial slurs he employed didn't become objectionable until the mid-20th century.

Thankfully, we live in an era of greater sensitivity. Modern writers need to bear modern social standards in mind when using potentially offensive language. Which isn't to say it can't or shouldn't be done, but that context matters.

Indubitably
06-02-2015, 08:32 PM
Is your book MG/YA, Cathleen?

CathleenT
06-04-2015, 07:45 AM
Yes, it's YA.

Indubitably
06-06-2015, 03:46 AM
Sorry! I just noticed this thread was a resurrection, so don't mind me. :)

Roxxsmom
06-15-2015, 02:51 AM
I think this is one of those things that will be in the hands of prospective agents and publishers. Some have explicit policies that they won't consider work that contains racial slurs or racial intolerance. This seems limiting to have blanket policies that don't take context into account, given that these are real-world issues, but there are also agents and publishers that won't consider stories with certain kinds of (or any) swearing, or with LGBT characters, or child abuse/abduction, or torture, or many other things that are part of some highly successful stories.

But there are also agents and publishers that do consider such stories and take context into account. I think it's just one of those things you have to think about. Who is your audience and how will they react to the use of these terms? Some readers don't particularly care for stories set in some times or places or that incorporate certain themes or language because it's too painful or unpleasant to immerse themselves in such a reality. They're not wrong, but it doesn't mean it's wrong for the author to write them either.

Edit--ah someone did thread necromancy. Thought this one felt familiar.