Sorting racist language from bad taste

The incident came and went quickly. In the middle of the Sydney-Hobart yacht race organisers tweeted a photo of a floundering boat called Indian and made a reference to it being "off the reservation".

The item was promptly deleted after folk pointed out that the wording made light of the brutal colonialist suppression of Native Americans and was therefore racist and offensive.

Patti Smith celebrated outsiders in <i>Rock n Roll Nigger</i>.
Patti Smith celebrated outsiders in Rock n Roll NiggerPhoto: Michele Mossop

Although perhaps a trivial instance, those who spoke up made a valid point. Racist language has real power to hurt and degrade and diminish. Racist language is bad – but, and here the easy certainty of the definitive gets a bit wobbly, is it always so?

The yacht race tweet shared common reference with an ongoing legal stoush in America involving a football team called The Redskins. A while back, the US Patent and Trademark Office stripped it of commercial protection, stating that the name was racist.

Since the judgment, The Redskins' legal team has been mulling appeal possibilities. They were provided with a huge, if unlikely, boost in December thanks to the turbulent fortunes of a dance band from Portland, Oregon.

The band is called The Slants, and it too was denied a trademark on the grounds that the name was racist. The thing is, though, all the members of The Slants are of proud Asian heritage. They chose the name mockingly – appropriating a common racist tag to rob it of its ability to wound.


Also, given that context, it's a bit funny. It adds to the long-running conflict between popular music and middle class good taste, a conflict that has produced bands with names like The Dead Kennedys, Butthole Surfers, Revolting Cocks, and, in Australia, The Hard-Ons and The F*** F***s.

The members of the US Court of Appeals may or may not be fans of alternative music, but they are apparently aware of its rich tradition of confected obscenity. A couple of weeks back the court overturned the trademark decision on the grounds that the band's name "conveys more about our society than many volumes of undisputedly protected speech".

Disapproving of the message expressed in a trademark, the judgment continued, is not valid grounds for refusing to register it.

The Redskins' legal team has already signalled it will be using The Slants case as a precedent in its own appeal.

Morally, though, if not necessarily legally, there seems a clear difference between the two cases. The football team is not a Native American organisation. The Slants are fundamentally an Asian-American band. The latter is an insider joke; the former is an outsider label.

The obvious reference point here is the successful appropriation of the word "nigger" by African-American communities and bands. The genre-defining hip-hop group NWA – Niggas With Attitude – enjoys massive reach and respect. No one – no one sane, anyway – would suggest the name indicates a self-hating racist depiction of black people.

From this, perhaps, we can cautiously conclude that racist language is critically dependent on context. But what if that context isn't clear to observers? Without knowledge of their heritage, is objecting to The Slants' name a case of laudable anti-racism, or political correctness gone mad?

There is a parallel example going on in Canada, concerning a punk band called Viet Cong. In recent months the band has been the subject of petitions and complaints, calling on its members to change the name.

The objections have been led by Canada's Vietnamese community, members of which consider the name an offensive, tasteless reminder of a brutal force that tortured and killed its own people.

There are no musicians of Vietnamese heritage in the band. Would it make a difference if there were?

And what should we make of the brief kerfuffle that erupted last May surrounding a British punk duo called Slaves? Is the band's name really racist, as some people alleged, or do we accept the musicians' explanation that the name implies "we are all slaves in this modern age, whether it be to our jobs, corporations, social media or society in general"?

In her 2007 stage show 'The Needle and the Damage Done', Melbourne writer-comedian Fiona Scott-Norman made much of the appalling casual racism in British singer Charlie Drake's 1961 hit song My Boomerang Won't Come Back.

Such a song, if it were written today, would not find a radio station prepared to play it – and neither should it. But what about Patti Smith's 1978 song, Rock n Roll Nigger, a deliberately provocative celebration of outsider heroes, including Jimi Hendrix, Jackson Pollock and Jesus?

Smith's long career and enormous influence render any accusations of racism absurd. But culture moves on, and few if any non-African-American artists would today feel comfortable deploying the N-word, no matter how well bolstered by counter-cultural theory.

All of which leaves us with a lasting challenge. Racism and bad taste often occur in tandem. Tackling racist language is a moral imperative. Censoring bad taste is morally indefensible. Our task is to learn to tell the difference.