Apropos of this post from Matt and especially the comments following it, we might find some benefit from a discussion about when a slur is actually a slur, and when it's merely a figure of speech that people who aren't from the south don't understand and just want to judge southerners and it's all so mean and unfair why can't southerners just talk the way they talk without getting judged all the time?
Today's "that's racist? I'm shocked, shocked I tell you!" term escaping from a southerner's heart is the word "boy." Calling a grown black man "boy" is another part of that rich heritage we're all supposed to respect, as it helped slaves to understand that they were an inferior class. It's like calling black women "mammy" and other assorted ways of asserting white privilege.
Several commenters at the above-linked post are claiming that while "boy" has been and could still be used as a racial slur, it's entered into the vocabulary of the south as just a colloquialism, a term of endearment that can be used to refer to any man at all. Certainly words can see their meanings change, and it is true that referring to a grown man as "boy" is in common usage among friends and colleagues.
The usual response to such a claim is to concede the point and then try to argue that while it may be appropriate for two friends to use the term, or even two members of the same race to use it, for a white man to call a black man "boy" is unacceptable. The problem with this response is that it causes people to fall into the same habit of always deferring to the south's whims and enabling its continued developmental problems.
To better illustrate what term "boy" actually means whenever it's spoken, let's do a little thought experiment. Suppose a group of young, white, heterosexual men playing basketball. They are all friends and play basketball together frequently. Speaking from my own experience in this type of setting, here's a list of terms and actions we would find at a typical game:
- fag, faggot
- grabbing another players crotch or butt to distract him (or other homoerotic acts), bringing about the above "fag" reference
- if a player attempts a dunk and fails, a chorus of "white men can't do that"
- after an awkward shot, a player can be told he shoots "like a girl"
There are no women, no homosexuals, no members of other races anywhere around. These men are friends, and they use these terms with each other every time they play basketball - most likely every time they are together. Are they inappropriate or not? Are these terms only inappropriate when spoken directly to people who fit into those categories, or are these words, even in the absence of anyone to whom they can be "legitimately" addressed, still somehow homophobic, sexist and racist?
Calling a grown man "boy" is a racist term. It just is, whether a black man is somehow involved or not, whether public or private. It came into common usage through its application in the slave trade, and when used by two white men or two black men or whomever, it is just another way that an insult is used affectionately - something we do all the time. And there's really nothing wrong with that, so long as the insult doesn't perpetuate and strengthen a legacy of oppression and violence toward members of a particular group.
If you're finding that you can't use a bunch of words that were "ok" when you were a kid, too bad. I'm not able to use a whole bunch of the terms we spoke in my majority-Hispanic birthplace. But I'm ok with that, because I've grown up and now understand what they really mean and do when someone says them, no matter how innocent the usage may be. There's a lot of words in the English language; it shouldn't be too hard to learn some new ones.