I have written about headlines before, but never one like this:
“The N***er in the White House.”
The tasteless headline appeared in a New York newspaper that prints about 20,000 copies monthly in Lower West Side Manhattan neighbourhoods.
The opinion piece under the headline is actually supportive of U.S. President Barack Obama. I suppose the prominently displayed, supremely racist word was intended to reflect the sentiment the writer was arguing against in the piece. In that way, the headline was intended as a crude, attention-grabbing summation of a despicable attitude and all that represents in the contemporary American political arena — which is a circus at the calmest of times.
Directly underneath the piece is another op-ed penned by another writer titled “The headline offends me.”
That writer describes his stomach churning in reaction to seeing the word, with its long and often violent oppressive history ingrained, so brazenly displayed.
Both pieces are compelling, and in reality, they are really on the same side of the debate: that racism has deep roots and a long history in America — a history that is still playing out as the country evolves under its first black president.
The problem with printing that word is exactly what the writers are reflecting: That its racist roots are so deep and so fresh that they’re surprisingly relevant. It stings to think the nation has come so far that its voting populous elects a black president only to be brought back to a reality by a sentiment that’s not as far gone as we’d hope.
It’s a blunt exercise in discomfort and self-examination for readers.
However, having the other piece acknowledging the offensive nature of the headline doesn’t negate its tastelessness.
The publisher of WestView News has since apologized for the headline, acknowledging his staff widely advised against using it.
Of course, racism is not a distinctly American quality; it exists virtually everywhere.
In newsrooms around Canada, there is currently a debate about the use of the word “aboriginal” to describe people who come from vastly different cultures.
The problem with the catch-all term is just that: it’s not very specific.
An Ojibwa person is not the same as a Syilx person is not the same as a Métis person is not the same as an Inuit person.
There is also confusion around use of the term “First Nations,” which, in Canadian Press style, specifically refers to the original people with whom the Crown signed treaties in the 1700s.
Though it’s not widely viewed as offensive as the “n-word,” “aboriginal” as a descriptor, was forced upon the people to whom it applies by other groups. In that way, it’s embedded with the values of colonialism.
The use of “indigenous” seems to be gaining momentum, but has a similar catch-all effect as “aboriginal,” so it may be on the wane in another 20 or so years.
There are also issues of a practical nature in using either the term “aboriginal” or “indigenous” that may seem petty to an outsider but which come into play every day in newsrooms.
Both words are cumbersome in headlines, which are often limited in the number of characters they can accommodate.
There’s also the question of relevance; when is it appropriate to use someone’s ethnic background in a story?
Faced with no neat and tidy solution for this at the Merritt Herald, many of our stories have liberally employed the word “aboriginal.”
One that comes to mind is a story I wrote about the school district’s aboriginal graduation ceremony in June. It is for Aboriginal peoples in that it invites students who are Métis, of Inuit background, and First Nations to participate alike.
In a case like that, it’s a useful term.
Oh, and if you’re wondering about that capital “A,” Canadian Press style specifies that we capitalize the word when we refer to all Aboriginal peoples, and lower case when we use “aboriginal” as an adjective.
Not even the editor’s Bible — the CP stylebook — has a good solution to this semantic dilemma.
Some may find “aboriginal” bothersome, others may find it offensively banal, some others may find its inclusiveness useful or even positive.
Certainly at the graduation ceremony it was both useful and positive, connecting people with distinct cultures but, in many ways, a shared heritage.
However, I think people should be able to determine how they’d like to be identified (within reason and relevance to the story, of course).
Telling a reporter you come from a long line of spaghetti-fingered monsters does not mean you will see that in the printed story, but specifying which traditional territory your ancestors come from can be helpful if that is something you identify with and if it lends your voice more credence to the topic.