“Kentucky player guilty of hate speech?”

The “N” word used by a Kentucky player at a post-game press conference on Saturday night raises the question:  Was it hate speech?

Why isn’t anybody calling for him to be expelled?  Just a few weeks previously, students from Ole Miss using the same word were expelled and derided nationally.

There is a difference.  The player muttering the “N” word is himself African-American.

I grew up in a hyper-sensitive Italian-Catholic community near Pittsburgh:  hyper-sensitive in that they were very guarded about any possible, perceived slight.  If a promising teenage basketball player didn’t become a starter on the varsity, you’d hear men in the community insisting, “The coach doesn’t like Italians.”

Yet among the Italians themselves, you would hear them jokingly calling each other Dago.  They would not stand for anybody else saying it who was not Italian — but they would say it themselves.

In fact, the nickname for Joe DiMaggio among the New York Yankees of the 1950s was — Dago.  It was said playfully and all the more so because DiMaggio was “christened” with the nickname by New York City’s most popular restaurateur, Toots Shor.

Those of us who lived in Pittsburgh in the 1980s remember the publication that was started by a community activist who was a steelworker.  Larry Evans called the paper The Mill Hunk Herald.  Nobody took offense.  Because the ones using the term Mill Hunk were themselves steelworkers.  They took pride in solidarity with the tough, old immigrants who in the early days of the industry were called Mill Hunks by outsiders.

By the way, Hunk to a more recent generation may seem a compliment, referring to a muscular male.  But that isn’t the meaning of the word among steelworkers.  Hunk refers to an Hungarian specifically and Eastern Europeans generally who came to America to find work in the mills:  Croatians, Poles, Czechs, Slavs…

Among the ethnic groups themselves, the word could be said.  And here’s why:  Nobody felt threatened.  One mill worker calling another “you dumb Dago” was playful.  But if an Anglo supervisor called a worker “a dumb Dago,” that was different.  It was a threat.  There was ill will behind it.

A worker could take the remark to mean that his job was threatened.

For blacks, it was all the worse.  For somebody outside of the community to use the “N” word meant not just a threat to a person’s job — but to a person’s life.

The same pattern of violence has trailed use of words against gay and transgender.

This is why there are protections against hate speech.  These are words that when used by outsiders have a history of violence and ill will behind them.

Some among us bemoan infringements of freedom of speech.  The debate over the banning of certain words in public has taken into consideration that in our land, freedom of speech is central to our spirit as a people.  But freedom of a minority from violence and injustice has been deemed to be more fragile, and thus needing more protection.


In response to this blog, there were concerns about a double standard regarding the use of the “N” word.

Equal treatment isn’t always fair treatment.  The news media called out the Kentucky player immediately on using the slur.  He was exposed, he was embarrassed to the point of apologizing, but he was not expelled like the white students from Ole Miss.  The two incidents, however, had a far different background; the remarks had a far different intent.  The subdued reaction of the target of the Kentucky player’s slur (Frank Kaminsky of Wisconsin) and Kaminsky’s coach show that the two situations were not the same.  “Equal” is not always “fair.”


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