By Chris Hoenig
From Richie Incognito and the Miami Dolphins bullying scandal to Paula Deen’s lawsuit and very public descent, a number of news stories have recently brought the use and perception of the N-word into public debate. It’s been debated by readers of this website. Even Donald Trump has sounded off on it. But what do everyday Americans—teens, America’s next generation, in particular—think about it?
A new poll by the Associated Press–NORC Center for Public Affairs Research and MTV has found that more teens today believe the use of racist and sexist slurs is wrong, despite many believing they are just used jokingly. Still, the frequency with which teens see such language being used hasn’t changed.
Nearly 60 percent of teens say it’s wrong to use the slurs, whether in words or images, even as a joke—almost 10 points more than when the poll was taken in 2011. Two years ago, most respondents thought it was OK to use the language among friends who knew you were joking. Now, more than half say that it’s wrong in those circumstances as well.
The respondents, who range in age from 14 to 24, say overweight people are the most common targets of discriminatory language, followed by members of the LGBT community. Blacks and women follow as the next most frequent victims.
While racial insults are seen as the least hurtful by the teens, 60 percent believe comments and images that target Muslims and transgender people are meant to be, and are, the most hurtful. Slurs against the rest of the LGBT community and overweight Americans follow right behind.
Technology is largely to blame. The majority of YouTube and Facebook users and online gamers reported seeing and hearing slurs and other hurtful speech “sometimes” or “often” online. “I see things like that all the time,” said Vito Calli, a 15-year-old from Reading, Pa., whose family emigrated from Argentina. “It doesn’t really bother me unless they’re meaning it to offend me personally.”
Calli’s experiences were shared by several respondents. “Most of the time they’re just joking around, or talking about a celebrity,” said Jeff Hitchins, a white 24-year-old in Springfield, Pa. “Hate speech is becoming so commonplace, you forget where the words are coming from, and they actually hurt people without even realizing it.”
Maria Caprigno, an 18-year-old Norwood, Mass., resident who has struggled with obesity for most of her life, is one of the respondents who has been hurt by such comments. “It’s still socially acceptable to comment on someone’s weight and what someone is eating,” she said. “We need to change that about our culture before people realize posting stuff like that online is going to be offensive to someone.”
Still, a sweeping change in the perception of slurs is underway. Erick Fernandez of West New York, N.J., said he used hurtful language until learning about the history of the slurs and phrases while attending a summer camp in high school. Now 22 years old, he said he’d been fighting an uphill battle with his friends over it, until recently. “I tried to call some of my friends out on it but it was really to no avail,” he said. “They brush it off and five minutes later something else will come out. Why even bother?”
Jeffrey Bakken has seen his share of racist and sexist comments as a producer at a Chicago video-game company. The 23-year-old said that public awareness is one of the keys to helping young Americans realize the impact of what they say and post. “Kids were horrible before the Internet existed,” he said. “It’s just that now it’s more accessible to the public eye.”