It reads like something you’d see on Engrish:

TORONTO – Doris Moore was shocked when her new couch was delivered to her home with a label that used a racial slur to describe the dark brown shade of the upholstery.

The situation was even more alarming for Moore because it was her 7-year-old daughter who pointed out “n—– brown” on the tag.

First: the word isn’t “n—–“; it’s “nigger.” What are we? 12 years old? I’m sick and tired of self-censorship by media outlets: hiding or obfuscating offensive words isn’t going to somehow mitigate their impact. It’s not a word with dark magic that will slay those who utter it or see it written; if you need to talk about it, then talk about it1.

Second: The above-quoted section is of course horrible, but funny in that one’s immediate reaction is not to imagine some sort of pernicious conspiracy to degrade black people via furniture tags—more likely, some silly, simple, gaffe lay at the heart of this tale. Indeed, there is such an explanation:

Kingsoft Corp., a Chinese software company, acknowledged its translation program was at fault and said it was a regrettable error.

[…]

[Huang Luoyi, a product manager Kingsoft] explained that when the Chinese characters for “dark brown” are typed into an older version of its Chinese-English translation software, the offensive N-word description comes up.

“We got the definition from a Chinese-English dictionary. We’ve been using the dictionary for 10 years. Maybe the dictionary was updated, but we probably didn’t follow suit,” he said.

A software screwup is at the heart of this cockup, and since every step along the way, from the manufacturer to the shipper, is manned by people whose acuity in the English language is so limited that the offensive tag was never noticed, the couch in question ended up in Doris Moore’s living room. An absurd tale, to be sure, but we all know how it must have been resolved: Kingsoft apologizes for the botched translation and updates its dictionary; Doris Moore rips off the tag and goes on with her life.

Right? Of course not. Someone’s delicate sensibilities have been offended.

Moore is consulting with a lawyer and wants compensation. Last week, she filed a report with the Ontario Human Rights Commission.

[…]

Moore, 30, has three young children, and said the issue has taken a toll on her family.

“Something more has to be done. We don’t just need a personal apology, but someone needs to own up to where these labels were made, and someone needs to apologize to all people of color,” Moore said. “I had friends over from St. Lucia yesterday and they wouldn’t sit on the couch.”

Compensation? For what? Seeing the word “nigger” on a furniture tag? Compensation for the tremendous psychological agony that it must be for her daughters that didn’t even know what the word means2? Compensation to Mrs. Moore for dredging up the long history of racism that must have plagued her turbulent 30 years?

And what fucking daft friends must she have who would refuse to sit on the damn couch? Did they think perhaps it was made by growling Klansmen to finance their operations?

I’m the first to admit that racism isn’t yet a mere spectre of America’s past: we’re still grappling with it. But the latest scandal with Don Imus has highlighted yet again a sort of hypersensitivity to any sort of offense whatsoever. We are led to believe the Rutgers women’s basketball team were happy, smiling people who were led by the—crass, yes—comments of some dumbshit shock jock into a morass of despair and self-loathing. I’m not mad that Imus got fired: that’s capitalism, after all. Once the advertisers bail, that’s it, and it has nothing at all to do with the supposed self-righteousness of the parent companies.

But the furor! Really! The absurd off-hand comments of an unfunny radio personality; the mistranslated adjective of a furniture tag: we see now the depths of racist depravity to which society has sunk.

  1. For an example of hysterical overreaction to clinical usage, see Christopher Hitchens’ article on the word in question[]
  2. “My daughter saw the label and she knew the color brown, but didn’t know what the other word meant.”[]
§1831 · April 20, 2007 · Tags: , , , , ·

5 Comments to “Taking racial sensitivity to a ridiculous degree?”

  1. Fips says:

    Couldn’t agree more. People often wonder what replace words like “fuck” or “cunt” when they’re overused to the extent that they completely lose their ability to shock, but of course such profanity already exists in the form of racial slurs, whether “niggers”, “spicks”, “chinks” or “pakis”. You’re right to point out that America is perhaps not completely secure about its past or its present racial diversity, but the basic point is sound. I prefer to imagine that much of this offence smacks of pretence than believe society really is breeding generations of wimps these days. It’s easier to stomach than believing people take offence at hearing the nursery rhyme “Ba ba black sheep” on account of some imaginery racist connotations.

  2. Rusty says:

    Didn’t loads of people have a right old mardy at someone on telly using the word “niggardly” a year or two ago?

  3. Ben says:

    I would not be at all surprised. Despite the disparity in the two terms’ etymologies, their pronunciation raises the irrational ire of some.

    One notable incident occurred in 1999, when a D.C. mayoral aide used some form of “niggard” with regard to a budget—some black employees, whose grasp of English was apparently less than stellar, took offense, called for the aide’s resignation, and got it. Thankfully, sanity prevailed and he was later rehired.

    It’s important to note that not everyone is a shrieking caricature: in the above-cited incident, Julian Bond (NAACP chairman at the time) backed the aide.

  4. Goldmare says:

    Um, yeah, talk about taking it too far… I mean, racism is bad, that’s for sure, but really… black people themselves actually use the word “nigger” (yes, I said it! GASP!) towards each other in a friendly way (similarly to “dog”). The only time it’s offensive is when a non-black person uses it (without permission)… sounds almost like racism in the other direction, doesn’t it?

    When I was in high school, I read a joke online. It involved skin colour, was funny, and was written by a black man. I repeated it to a friend in the Breakfast Room before class started. A classmate of mine, one of the small handful of black students in the school, came up to me and informed me (politely) that she found the joke offensive and asked that I not repeat it. I agreed (don’t like to step on toes), but was baffled as to the reason for the offense, and, quite frankly, still am.

    Some peole are too easily offended, and then some people aren’t offended enough (turning a blind eye to real problems because they don’t want to be ridiculed or whatever). I don’t suppose there will ever be a healthy balance in this world. -_-

  5. Ƹ̵̡Ӝ̵̨̄Ʒ says:

    Moore is simply doing it for the money. I’m pretty sure most people, even racists, would do the same in this situation. It’s hypersensitivity that allows such claims to hold up in court, but it’s greed that starts the lawsuits in the first place.

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