The Power of Slurs

There’s a funny scene in Gran Torino, one of the best movies I’ve ever seen, where Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood) and John Carroll Lynch (Martin the barber) try to teach Thao Vang Lor (Bee Vang) how to talk like a man. They use a lot of racial and ethnic slurs and references to sodomy.

I think it shows that many racial and ethnic slurs have lost the power to hurt and have become emblems of friendship and respect. The US armed services, especially the army during WWII, had a lot to do with this. American¬† soldiers who might never have known people of other races and nationalities lost their bigotry — if they ever harbored any — in the cauldron of war where they had to rely on one another to survive.

Sgt Roddie Edmonds
Sgt Roddie Edmonds

Sergeant Roddie Edmonds was captured during the Battle of the Bulge and was the ranking nout n-commissioned officer in Stalag IX-A. When the camp’s commandant held a gun to his head and ordered him to identify which of his men were Jewish, Edmonds famously declared “We are all Jews here.”

So wop, spic, dago, kike, polack, canuck, frog, limey — even kraut — all these slurs lost their power. After all, there were plenty of Americans of German ancestry who fought for the US including Dwight Eisenhower and Chester Nimitz.

But some slurs retain their power to hurt —¬† notably ‘the n-word’ — and I think that’s partly because of the segregation of the armed forces in WWII. Since they were integrated, the armed forces have done a lot to reduce racism, but the percentage of the population serving is not as high as it was in my parents’ generation, so the social impact has not been as wide.

I went to Groton School, which admitted its first black students in 1951, three years before the Supreme Court issued its famous Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawing segregated schools. This was because of headmaster Jack Crocker and his wife Mary Trowbridge Crocker, who marched with Martin Luther King and were active in the Civil Rights Movement. King even spoke at the school, though that was before I went there.

But I remember as a young second former when a national news network — maybe it was CBS — was doing a story about integration and they had television crews on the campus. Two upper classmen — one black and one white — decided it would be funny to walk by the cameras shouting at each other “Nigger, nigger, nigger,” and “white trash, white trash, white trash.” I think it was Neddy Townsend and Sheldon Mosby.

We thought it was hilarious. We were kids. But you know, I still think it’s funny. Neddy and Sheldon were making fun of racism. I think that might be the key to disempowering the n-word.