The Critical 'I'

Read. React. Repeat.

Saturday, December 27, 2003

When does the use of ethnic-speak cross the line from casual hip to offensiveness? Apparently, when you devote a whole column to it, like Naples Daily News columnist Brent Batten did earlier this month.

Batten is Southwest Florida's third-rate answer to Miami's Dave Barry; as I don't much care for Dave Barry, you can imagine what I think of a Dave Barry wannabe like Batten.

Batten's column provoked a stir as it spread through the Internet, eventually earning a rebuke from the National Association of Black Journalists. This in turn prompted published apologies from both Daily News editor Phil Lewis and Batten himself.

Eric Deggans at the St. Petersburg Times offers a good overview of the episode, including some pertinent points on why exactly this was a problem:

What Lewis said he didn't realize before publishing the column was the context.

Though hip-hop fans include people of all races, the music and its culture come from black culture. Black artists and producers still dominate the form. And the patterns of speech come directly from black culture.

For this black reader, seeing Batten's parody felt like watching an Amos and Andy routine. Forget about the tenuous connection between hip-hop slang and a failed concert; the story felt like a veiled racist joke, implying that the limited intelligence of people who talk a certain way was the real reason the concert failed.

For me, as I implied at the start of this post, the joke stops being a joke when it runs too long. A piece like Batten's works as long as the slang is used sparingly, ideally in a skillful blend. When it consists of continuous paragraphs with obviously strained usage, it becomes, at best, tiresome to read, and at worse, cluelessly offensive.

I make use of rap lingo extensively, in my writing and my everyday casual speech. One of my favorite examples on this blog was, appropriately enough, germane to the topic: CNN's leaked internal memo on encouraging its reporters to incorporate more flava into their stories. My feeling is that you go by your gut--you just know when how far is too far. I'm playing for comedic value, and you have to know where the funny line is. Hopefully, it doesn't rub anyone the wrong way; then again, I'm not staying up at night worrying about it. I think I know how to express my true intent, and using urban verbage is not the tool I'd ever think of using to give offense.