THE BLOG

MannersWatch: Was Barbara Walters Wrong for Using the N-Word on the Air?

Oct 07, 2011 | Updated Feb 02, 2016

The Facts: This week journalists covering Gov. Rick Perry's campaign reported that his family hunting camp is known as "Niggerhead," setting off a political firestorm about Perry's involvement and whether this is the smoking gun of racial insensitivity, or worse, on his part. On Monday, the flames landed on the set of The View when Barbara Walters used the name of the retreat on the air and was blasted by co-host Sherri Shepherd.

The Faux Pas: Both Whoopi Goldberg and Shepherd referred to Perry's hunting camp as "Niggerhead," with Goldberg emotionally noting, "It's very hard for me to say. The fact that I just said it now gives me chills." Moments later Walters joined in the conversation, also referring to the camp by its actual name, which drew a strong rebuke from Shepherd, who said, "I didn't like the way you said it. ... I don't know if it's a semantics thing, but it's something that goes through my body." As for Goldberg's use, Shepherd said, "When I heard you say it, it was fine. You said it in a different way."

The Fix: Newspapers and media outlets have been referring to the Perry camp as "Niggerhead" ever since the story broke, and Walters' use of it is no different. Walters is given an added pass because both of her co-hosts had already used the name on a national broadcast, no doubt leading her to think that it was an acceptable term on the program, although a heartfelt disclaimer similar to Goldberg's would likely have gone a long way in tempering Shepherd's fire and ire. Next time, Whoopi and Sherri, please don't use these phrases in mixed company if you don't want to send a mixed message. And don't do it on national TV.

The Walters example, however, is the exception to the rule. We all need to take responsibility for the language we deploy, especially if we're in a minority group. For example, speaking as a gay man, it's one thing for us to use "faggot" or "dyke" among our own. Often these terms (actually of endearment) are delivered with a knowing wink, a certain warmth, almost in a family sort of way. Even so, they're still dicey in our community and make some uncomfortable. Out of the wrong mouths, there's no question: these phrases are powerful epithets. Intention and context matter.

The Finding: For Barbara Walters.

Agree? Disagree? Let 'er rip.

Steven Petrow is a nationally recognized manners columnist and the author of Steven Petrow's Complete Gay & Lesbian Manners. You can find him online here.