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Burning Down the House: Invoking the N-Word to Fight Use of "Retard"

A public service ad from the Special Olympics that asks people to stop using the word "retard" as an insult is drawing attention because it makes explicit use of the n-word to make its point. Already, some viewers are asking whether that distraction is helping or hurting the campaign.

  • Note to readers: The remainder of this item contains offensive language and may not be safe for work.
Viewers were shocked on May 24 when the ad was first aired on Fox's Glee. It begins with an African-America man sitting in a diner who says:
It is not acceptable to call me a nigger.
Several other minority actors repeat the statement with their own insults -- spic, kike, chink, etc. -- before actors Jane Lynch and Lauren Potter from Glee appear to ask us to add "retard" to the lexicon of not acceptable words:

Only a curmudgeon would disagree with the intent of the campaign, but the Twitterverse has been distracted by the uncensored use of the n-word in primetime:

@zachflauaus: Woah, holy crap. They just said the n-word on a commercial after Glee. That caught me off guard. O_o

@TheRealBigSol: I know Glee is a progressive show, but under no circumstances whatsoever should the N-word be said on primetime network TV! #toocomfortable

@amandabodene: Woah! Woah! Woah! They did not just use the N word in a glee commercial! That is a no no word that is not to be compared to the word retard

@ShawnaDarko: Love the Glee commercials against bullying, although using the n word on national television did sort of shock me.

The n-word has been used on television programming extensively, although usually within an "acceptable" context such as historical drama, debates about race relations, rap music and The Dave Chappelle Show on Comedy Central. It has almost never been used in a TV spot.

Insulting one group to help another
The Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation for the Benefit of Persons with Intellectual Disabilities, which runs the Special Olympics and the "Spread the Word to End the Word" campaign, has left itself wide open to the accusation that it is needlessly offending viewers by leveraging an especially charged racial insult to benefit a minority group other than blacks. Not everyone is on board. The LA Weekly's media blog noted:

Well, first off, it's not really the same as every minority slur. There's an ugly history of discrimination, slavery and homicide that goes along with the 'n-word,' another example used in the PSA.
To equate an accurate word ["retard" has legitimate non-offensive uses] to ones associated with utter hatred and even lynching is, well, retarded.
The campaign will become even more interesting if Spread the Word can get the ad to run in taxicab video monitors, as they hope to. That would require minority drivers to hear those insults dozens of times a day, each time a new passenger enters the car.


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