Ebert Goes Beyond the Pale?

The other day, movie critic Roger Ebert, who’s a prolific user of Twitter, longtime husband to a black woman, and pretty socially aware guy generally speaking, posted this tweet:

I’d rather be called a Nigger than a Slave. http://bit.ly/hr7Ti8

The link, as you might guess, being to a story about the upcoming edits to make Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn more politically correct by changing every instance of the word “nigger” in the book to “slave.”

Apparently, he experienced some negative fallout from that tweet, as one can see by a tweet he made the next day that said this:

You know, this is very true. I’ll never be called a Nigger *or* a Slave, so I should have shut the **** up. http://bit.ly/gVRLu0

The link in that tweet links to a post at the “Oh No They Didn’t” site, which likes to break celebrity gossip and take the famous down a peg when they deserve it (and also when they don’t). The ONTD post seemed to have a bit more venom than I think was deserved, in part because it was posted pretty soon after Ebert’s first tweet and accuses him of making no response or apology to the outrage. (Really? You know how much outraged response he got? And you know that he was ignoring it when he probably barely had had the time to process it?)

As I type this, that post still hasn’t been updated to note the he has, in fact, now done exactly that (apologize, that is, and he did that early in the day…and I’m typing this as 5 p.m.). I know that the author of the ONTD post is aware of the fact Ebert posted an apologetic tweet promptly, because the author has responded to comments that pointed out Ebert must read ONTD, since he responded with a retraction of his words. So I guess making him look bad is more fun that updating the post to be accurate and give him credit where it’s due.

But my little rant about fairness aside, what I really want to talk about is the point that seems to have been missed. People visiting the ONTD site made comments like Ebert has no right to use the word “nigger” and he won’t ever be called one so he should shut the fuck up about the issue. Some even suggested he had no right to comment on the deletion of the N-word from Twain’s book (which makes no sense) and many pointed out (rightly so) that being married to a black woman doesn’t make him a black man or entitle him to throw around the N-word.

Thing is, he didn’t “throw it around.” His use of the word had a context.

Moreover, the outrage misses a very important point: That Roger Ebert is right.

I’m sorry if this loses me some readers (quite a lot of whom are black, in fact). But in addition to making a legitimate comment on the stupidity of removing the N-word to sanitize a book for modern political correctness and dilute its positive message about treating people as people (Twain was a pretty racially aware and socially minded guy, especially for his times)…well…wouldn’t most black people indeed (granted, Ebert isn’t one and never will be) rather be a nigger than a slave?

It seems to me that such a sentiment is sort of implicit in Ebert’s tweet. To be called a slave means you probably are a slave, and that’s a life that is horrific and demeaning in its entirety. To be called a nigger is demeaning, to be sure, but it is an insult, not a lifestyle that is forced on you. To have the N-word flung at you is a sign of hatred but it also is often a sign of fear. That’s not healthy, but I think most black people would rather be insulted for being seen as scary (as screwed up as that mindset of many non-blacks is) than to be enslaved.

In fact, I daresay that if Samuel L. Jackson had tweeted “I’d rather be called a nigger than a slave” people would be saying “Hell yeah!”

Yes, Ebert took a risk making that tweet, and he regrets it. And it’s true that he doesn’t know what it feels like to be a black man. But I’ll tell you this much: He’s a lot closer to knowing than most of the annoying white “I’m liberal so I can’t be racist” people slamming him right now. I, too, am married to a black woman and while this doesn’t make me black either, nor allow me to totally understand the black experience, I know a lot about how racism affects black people. I’ve seen its effects on my wife and Son of Blue, and one day I will see it affect Little Girl Blue.

Tell me, honestly, if you’re black and read my blog: Would you rather be a slave or be considered a [insert the N-word here because if I use it again I might be labeled a racist by an ONTD fan or Huffington Post devotee]?

And if your answer is the same as Roger Ebert’s, does his tweet diminish the value of that thought simply because he is white?

It’s going to be really hard to have racial discussions if we jump down a man’s throat for trying to say something meaningful and perhaps coming off wrong because he only had 140 characters in which to express himself.

I’d rather be called a Nigger than a Slave.

12 thoughts on “Ebert Goes Beyond the Pale?

  1. the word of me

    I have found that people “mis-speak” often when they are writing or talking. Often the “mis-speak” is just a matter of not being able to express yourself properly through, or because of, time or space considerations. The man is probably in constant pain and suffering and I give him much liberty as I know him to be a good and honest person.

    Like you post Deacon…keep up the good work.


  2. Ann

    Actually ONTD posted a follow up post letting people know of his apology. everyone saw his new tweet. since ONTD gets dozens of posts a day, people move on to new pages quickly and miss updates on old posts in a matter of hours, so it’s pointless updating posts members will miss in the pile of new stuff (I think the original post is buried 100+ pages back today). so new topics are opened when a major update happens, people don’t miss them and veryone gets to discuss the update. and since this so called apology (I don’t see the word sorry in it) happened today, it needed to be on a separate post. so yeah, better check the website properly. ONTD posted this sarcastic new tweet of his.
    ONTD is also very aggresive site and users tend to exagerate things on posts because apparently they are the stars of the page, not the actual news story. it’s been like that for years when the site became famous

    —-> In fact, I daresay that if Samuel L. Jackson had tweeted “I’d rather be called a nigger than a slave” people would be saying “Hell yeah!”

    He’s been there. nobody will ever call roger either word, so it’s easier for him to imagine himself in a very hypothetical situation that he will never have the discomfort of living. ever. all he needed was to explain himself clearly to not offend people and not use the “I would rather be called”. when will anyone call him either?
    people of other races need to understand that they can’t imagine or put themselves in these hypothetical situations because it’s not really something they will ever go through and it kind of makes it even sadder that our ancestors went through so much shit if people still to this day, don’t understand the pain that certain words make us feel. wods always carry weight, they are never just words. even if you go through some sort of discrimination, it’s not quite the same as this. and if people get incredibly aggressive or defensive it’s only because sadly they know too well what it’s like to be there. the pain, the humiliation, all that shit. you will never go through that so we can mistake your naivete with insensitivity when you put yourself in the position of “imagining” being one of us. you’re not. it’s a lot more complicated thean you think it is.

    personally I understand the point ebert unccessfully tried to make. but I’m just sad he wouldn’t consider that his tweet would offend people. it was obvious that it would. it did. he posted it anyway.

    —> if you’re black and read my blog: Would you rather be a slave or be considered a [insert the N-word]

    I’d rather never be insulted and be called by my name instead. I hate, hate, hate the n-word and since nobody will ever call me a slave (yo!, slave!), you know my answer.

    Maybe people just need to be careful with the words they use. like it or not, we don’t approve the use of the n-word by white people. that’s still pretty much a taboo. you all know this. it has nothing to do with the book anymore. the moral is to never get too comfortable and always think things through. and don’t assume your point is crystal clear when there’s obvious room for missunderstandings.

  3. Deacon Blue


    First off, I appreciate the clarification about ONTD immensely. I’ve never really frequented the site before so the dynamics of it are lost on me (every site, forum, etc. has it’s own flavor). I guess the thorough and “I don’t want any confusion” genes in me simply expect older posts to at least have a link to the new info. I’m funny that way. Because, you see, I only saw THAT post and I’m sure I’m not the only person. Since not everyone who goes there is a regular, they need to be cognizant (just as Roger Ebert might have needed to rethink his tweet before he posted it, or post something longer on his blog or Facebook where he could have made the point in a less dicey manner).

    I have to completely disagree with you that his second tweet wasn’t an apology. I also don’t think it was flippant or sarcastic. An apology isn’t required to include “sorry” in it. If I say, “Boy, I fucked up” or “I was totally wrong” or something along lines I would be admitting I was wrong and showing regret. That’s the nature of an apology. In his tweet, he agrees that the complaint against him was valid, and says he should have just shut up instead.

    Now, if he had simply posted “I guess I’m just supposed to shut the **** up” that would be sarcastic.

    I may be giving him too much credit for his original tweet, but people are reacting out of anger and not reading him correctly to paint his second tweet as something sarcastic.

    The N-word is always going to be dicey, but no one needs “approval” to use it. There are times it is simply silly to say “N-word.” Making a blanket rule that white people can’t say it doesn’t help anything, because when you start saying a person can’t use a word (regardless of context or intent) you might as well not talk at all.

    Now, having said all this, I understand and agree with you substantially that it is dangerous to try to put oneself in the shoes of someone else who has an experience that cannot be fully understood. At the same time, though, I think people should try. If we don’t try to get into other people’s heads (be they victims, friends, enemies or whatever), we doom ourselves to staying stuck in our own ruts.

    Should Ebert have actually expressed his feelings out loud (so to speak) instead of simply keeping it in his own head? Probably not. I’m not sure it was “obvious” to him at the time, though, that his statement would be seen as so offensive.

    My main complaint is the degree of vehemence being tossed at Ebert for what seems to me to be a mistake. We’re too quick in this digital age to crucify people on the spot. Ebert wasn’t attempting to insult anybody…he wasn’t stereotyping or profiling anybody…he used a word he shouldn’t have used and put himself in a position to comment on something he wasn’t qualified enough to speak of at the level in which he did.

    He chose entirely the wrong venue to make his comment. He suffered from a bit of blindness that sometimes comes with white privilege.

    But the rancor I saw seems to be totally out of proportion to what happened.

    None of us is perfect, and we need to be judged on the totality of who we are (or how we present ourselves) and not by single moments in time.

  4. Deacon Blue

    The more I think about this issue, there are three things that truly bother me about the reaction to Roger Ebert’s admittedly poor decision to make that original tweet:

    First, it was clear that he was making reference to the totally inappropriate and counterproductive editing of “Huckleberry Finn,” NOT making some blanket statement of how black people should feel about either the N-word or being called a slave (since slavery doesn’t exist anymore in this nation). So the context that Ebert is putting his perceptions and theoretical “black” self into the story and in a past era is clear. And yet ONTD has a headline that claims Ebert is declaring which terms are correct to use/better or worse/etc. But he patently didn’t do that. He was making a reference to a book that covers a past era. So already, out of the starting gate, he’s being accused of doing something he didn’t do.

    He should be lambasted for the mistake(s) he actually made…not accused of doing something he clearly didn’t do.

    Second, as regrettable and inflammatory as it was for him to put himself in a black mindset/perspective, he said “I” would rather…Not, “anyone would rather.” Whether he should have personalized it, he was making a statement that applied to his preference. (In all fairness, this might not be a second point, really, but a follow-on to the previous point).

    Third, we all know most of the people crying foul are most likely white. Simply based on percentages, the majority (how much, though, I couldn’t say) of people calling Ebert out aren’t black themselves. And they are putting themselves on this lofty “I would never do that” pedestal, and being blind to their own prejudices. Ebert, for his part, actually has some connection to the black community…most white liberal folks I’ve known who get all bent out of shape about racism don’t even associate with non-whites. They talk to a person of color at work (or more than one) and then act like they have friends who aren’t white…when in fact they almost exclusively hang out with whites.

  5. Pollypureheart

    Ok I can’t comment for now on his whole ‘tweet’ issue but truth be told I think Roger Ebert is a MAJOR prick and I have a lot of issues with him especially considering he’s married to a black woman. You may not agree Deacon but I really don’t give a crap first off he had the nerve to whine about how we need more ‘uplifting’ black movies when Hollyweird was going through it’s ‘growing up in the hood’ phase yet he still INSISTS on praising ‘Birth of a Nation’ WHAT?!! You cry out supposedly for more positive movies about blacks yet celebrate a movie that worships and I DO mean worships the Klan then he and EVERY other movie critic when reviweing the Oscar winning film ‘Driving Miss Daisy’ used about 5,000 adjectives to describe Jessica Tandy’s character but when it came to Morgan Freeman he was just ‘the black chauffer’. That’s it no hundred thousand words to mention who HE played no he was just her subservient and that’s all then there’s the matter of Will Smith movie critics seem to ONLY love him when he was playing a gay man and what I guess was an ex-slave in ‘Legend of Bagger Vance’ a movie that made me sick to my stomach for MANY reasons. That being the main one then there’s the matter of him playing devil’s advocate over the issue of why you don’t see very many love scenes between white males and black females in movies. His perspective seem to be that the ACTRESS not actor is not the least bit objective enough to make fake love on-screen with a white male right and I’m going to best Kate Middleton as the baddest bitch in Buckingham when I marry uncle Andrew tomorrow. Even if he was playing devil’s advocate how DARE he ask such a question would he like it if somebody asked his WIFE that?!! And another thing I didn’t at all appreciate his statement when he was discussing the movie ‘I Dreamed of Africa’ and said he didn’t want to sound ‘politically correct’ when he questioned where were all the Africans. That’s not being politically correct a-hole it’s a VALID question and should have been addressed say what you will about this tweet but to me he is a pompous full of it closet racist bleep bleep and if I were his wife I’d be talking a long hard look at some of the ish he’s been spewing the past decade or so.

  6. Deacon Blue

    Well, Pollypureheart, I can honestly admit that I haven’t followed his movie reviews all that religiously since I was in high school or college, long before I had any first-hand experience with the black experience and any kind of decent understanding of the issues blacks face and the existence of white privilege.

    So, your take on his racial attitudes is something I can neither refute nor support; I can only say that you’ve given some serious food for thought. I see him through his tweets, primarily, and very few of those strike me as prick-ish, and until this latest tweet, not a single one has struck me as remotely racist.

    The only point I would truly quibble is your take on his attitude toward “Birth of a Nation.” I just read this…


    …and I find it hard to agree with your assessment. He is commenting on it as a film for its technical merits and in the context of the mindset at the times. In no way do I read him in that as brushing off the negatives of the message.

    But does he perhaps harbor more white privilege-fueled racial hangups than I suspect? Perhaps.

    But you’re viewing him through a wider lens than just his tweets, so perhaps you are more justified in your criticisms than I am in my defenses.

    But I still have questions as to how much he deserves the LEVEL of criticism that he has, even if he does deserve some harsh feedback.

  7. Deacon Blue

    OK, now my wife has chimed in as well, with words to the effect of “Don’t ever argue with a black person about Birth of a Nation; it’s a terrible movie.”

    Because clearly my words are either not being read carefully enough or I’m not communicating well enough, let me be clear:

    I’m not defending Birth of a Nation, nor am I defending Roger Ebert’s classification of it as a great example of American filmmaking.

    I simply said his review didn’t exactly express support for the message of the film.

    Roger Ebert may have loads of underlying racial hangups. I don’t know.

    I’m simply saying that he’s not exactly running around saying the N-word or making a habit of presenting himself as an expert on black subjects. Hell, I didn’t even know he was married to a black woman until a few years ago.

    My point isn’t that Ebert was right or wrong with his N-word tweet. And my previous comment above isn’t meant to say his film criticism is color-blind.

    My point is that people say unfortunate things at times, and because of the racial history in this nation…being as poor as it has been with regard to treatment of non-whites, particularly the blacks and native Americans…one wrong step sometimes gets people labeled as being racial jackasses of a level they might not deserve.

    I’m just saying that it doesn’t help racial discussions to assume things about a person based on a single (or small number) of mistakes or to take a misstep and blow it up into some kind of proof of their rampant racism.

    The biggest barrier to racial understanding in this country is, without a doubt, white privilege (and along with that, the inability of most whites to recognize its existence and power and far-reaching effects). However, that being said, taking justifiable anger over racial mistreatment and possibly having that distort perceptions so that you’re not taking a person’s words in their context…thus possibly making them more of a villain than they might actually be…doesn’t help things, either.

    Is it a lesser sin? Sure. But it still doesn’t help.

    I hope that’s clear enough. I posed the question of whether Ebert deserved what he got in terms of backlash. I’m more convinced now than I was before that perhaps he does.

    But I still wonder if the backlash he deserves is being ramped up to levels that are greater than they should be.

  8. Pollypureheart

    Ok here’s the thing I’m not going after him for ONE thing it’s a number of things he has said over the years I find troubling one of them being his celebrating that movie and many times NOT going there with it’s hateful and violent and sickening message. Maybe you haven’t followed him over the years but I have and he has said stuff that really makes me question his ability to partner with a black woman. Acknowledging privilege is one thing taking a step back and assesing how much you take for granted and trying to CORRECT that behvaior is something else. Even if Ebert bemoans his privilege if he still does everything humanly possible to enjoy it’s amentities is frankly paying lip service which is something I hate when white people do.

  9. Deacon Blue

    Fair enough.

    Again, I fully admit to a less-than-entire view of Ebert. I see him only through Twitter and occasional online reviews.

    As to the white privilege part, let’s be fair though: We can hardly expect white people to give up the amenities of white privilege. I don’t expect my wife, for example, to be poor as she works with the poor. Certainly, a white person does no good giving up the amenities of privilege. (Were I to renounce the amenities that I am able to enjoy, the effect on my family would not be positive)

    The thing is to recognize it, not abuse it, and work toward making sure the privilege begins to be whittled away as non-white are given the opportunities to also get their fair share of the pie. Not all whites are in a position to give those opportunities…not even celebrities. What is needed is for employers/business owners/producers/etc. (that is, people in positions to make or break people and groups of people) to own up the inequities and stop hiring and advancing people who only look like themselves.

  10. robyn

    making history ‘pretty’ is wrong. part of the greatness of huck finn is his own growing discomfort with the status quo. deleting ‘offending’ words weakens that experience. and what next? in another 50 years, when the politically correctamundos decide slave is BAD word or something else?
    as for me, i’d rather be called a kike to my face then kissed on the cheek and stabbed in the back.

  11. Andromeda

    Ok. Here’s my 2 cents worth on this. I am a Black, (African American, Colored, Black not of Hispanic Origin, or whatever the hell we are being called now) women from the south. I do not like the use of the “N” word, and try my best not to ever use it even when I am around other black people. There is no use and should not have ever been any use for the word. But everytime I see the word in print I don’t blow a fuse. If I had read that tweet, before reading this blog I would not have given it a second thought. Because that would not have stood out enough to me to say this white man was being racist. If a black person had written that no one would have said anything. So if we are going to critize someone for useing that word, it should not only be for white people. Any time you read or hear the “N” word no matter who is using it the reaction should be the same. If my grandson who is totally 100% black calls some one the “N” word ( see I am black and too afraid to use it) it would spank his behind just the same if he calls some one a Son of a Bitch or a Motherfucker.

  12. Deacon Blue

    Thanks, Andromeda, for the thoughts.

    I find it to be a pretty offensive word (even though, of course, I used it several times in this blog post in its full form), along with many others that are either targeted to a specific group, race, gender, etc. But, like with any word, I think there are always contexts and times that it need to be used if for no other reason than to avoid complete dilution of meaning.

    In my opinion, it’s always about context.

    If, for example, I was highlighting the abusive language of a wife beater by noted he used the word “cunt” a lot, I likely wouldn’t write “C-word” (even though it’s a word, like the N-word, that I veeeeery rarely speak or write) out of concern that I’d be softening the impact too much AND that not everyone might know what C-word I’m talking about. Granted, the vast majority of people know what “N-word” means, but we need to face the fact that if we shy away from it too much and for too long, people may not always know what it means and they may not continue to understand how hurtful it is when used in a personal and vindictive sense (as opposed to a more “academic” manner)


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