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Sticks and Stones--and Words--Can Hurt

Race: Boston magazine made a major faux pas by forgetting that some things can't be said by outsiders.

April 15, 1998|KAREN GRIGSBY BATES | Karen Grigsby Bates is a regular contributor to this page

For the purposes of this discussion, let's call them intragroup designations. You know what those are; they're when people of the same ethnicity greet or speak about one another and use phrases that you'd never consider in polite company: Italians in movies like "Wise Guys" or "The Godfather" affectionately address one another as "guinea" or "wop"--but woe to the person who isn't part of the club and uses that language. Writer Dominick Dunne once explained that he supposed his delight in getting even with his enemies was ethnically based: "It's the mick in me." His ancestors are Irish, so he gets away with it. A man I had lunch with once breezily referred to his Cadillac as a "Jew Canoe," and when I looked at him as if he'd lost his mind, he winked and said "I can say it; you can't."

That critical differentiation is, in part, what's stirred up the latest tempest in Boston's teapot. Boston magazine forgot the rule about intragroup designation. In a long, mostly complimentary profile of Henry Louis Gates Jr., the chairman of the African American Studies Department and W.E.B. DuBois professor of humanities at Harvard, the editors smugly labeled the story: "Head Negro in Charge: Why Skip Gates May Be the Most Important Black Man in America."

The offensive term, for those not familiar with it, comes from a mordantly self-mocking reference in the antebellum South. A plantation overseer often would appoint a slave to assist in the oversight of his peers, a position the other slaves wryly referred to as "Head Negro in Charge," usually with the full understanding of the irony involved. Over the years, this facetious title became abbreviated HNIC and referred, later, to any black person who seemed to have been anointed by the white powers-that-be to act as spokesperson for the race.

But "self-mocking" is the important part of that phrase. (Remember: "I can say it, you can't"?) Boston magazine editor Craig Unger, who is not black, misstepped badly when he used HNIC on the cover and on the story's title page. He was, he said, "being provocative" when he labeled Gates the HNIC at one of America's most prestigious universities. He professes not to know what all the flap is about, since he's heard (or heard of) black people using the phrase. Some black people use the N-word, too, but Unger had enough sense to refrain from using that word on the cover.

If the magazine hadn't had such a history of hostile relations with Boston's black community, Unger might have been cut a little slack, given a bit of room for interpretation. But for a publication that has a reputation of sneering at the Boston's black populace when it isn't ignoring them entirely, it's safe to say that many black Bostonians did not give Unger the benefit of the doubt.

"The magazine has never had a relationship with Boston's black community," says Joan Wallace-Benjamin, president of the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts. "The article, which was a good piece of journalism, and the headline don't go together. Mr. Unger knew what he was doing when he used those words. And his refusal to apologize for them makes his initial mistake that much worse."

Unger is unrepentant; he says he "regrets" the fact that some Bostonians--including nonblack ones, like Mayor Thomas Menino--were offended by his phraseology, but he refuses to apologize for having offended them. He seems to be retreating behind the rationale undergirding that old "sticks and stones" rhyme; "words can never hurt me."

Maybe not, but in cities like Boston, which, like Los Angeles, has endured plenty of racial tension, the magazine's editor should be smart enough to know that ill-chosen words can up the ante considerably. And if city magazines are supposed to foster and enhance a sense of community, Boston, in using its ill-considered headline to describe one of the nation's hottest scholars, failed big-time. Let's hope its sister publications take note and learn.

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