Dehumanizing Others Through Racial Slurs: Interview with Adam Croom


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When can we use the N-word and when should we avoid it?  Deciding if it’s okay for us to use this word in a positive, non-offensive way depends on precisely who we are and whether a shared, common history gives us the right to “slur.”

Adam Croom has studied the impact of racist slurs and the ways in which they are used in a positive way by members of black in-groups. Image courtesy of Adam Croom

Adam Croom, a senior at the University of Pennysylvania, spoke to Decoded Science about the motivation behind racist uses of slurs.  “The use of derogatory language, including the use of racial slurs, played an instrumental role in the perpetuation of race-based discrimination because it offered racist speakers a way to dehumanize their targets and think of them in subhuman, rather than fully human terms.” 

Croom is currently majoring in Linguistics and Cognitive Science, and in Philosophy and Science, and has carried out extensive research on the subject, as illustrated in his article Slurs, published in the academic journal, Language Sciences.

When Slurring is a Positive Action

The use of epithets and racial slurs are not always as simple as overt racism and dehumanization.  Croom cites, as an example, the case of two African Americans, old friends from school, who subsequently fight together in the US Army, supporting each other in times of adversity.  Closely bonded, the two exchange slurs and this interaction is not likely to be interpreted by either party as racial derogation. Therefore, the utterance of a slur does not always indicate that the utterer possesses derogatory intent, either now or in the future.  The friendship of the two young men is founded on common ground, a close rapport and strong friendship – so a derogatory assumption would be, obviously, out-of-place.

“Even if I can’t use the slur without offending African Americans, for instance, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they can’t either,” says Croom.  Croom cites how Dave Chappelle called the uses of the n-word slur “an act of freedom.”   Russell Simmons says that when black kids use the n-word, it simply means they walk a certain way, that they are special and that they have their own language.

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