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Cliff, the N-word and Missed Opportunities

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At the end of a Feb. 17 interview with the Times-Standard editorial board, First District supervisorial candidate Cliff Berkowitz used the N-word. He didn't direct it at anyone or tell a racist joke. But in discussing incumbent Rex Bohn's widely reported racist joke last year, he gave an example of unacceptable behavior for a white person and quoted the title of a 1974 Richard Pryor album that includes the N-word. Then he asked not to be quoted, which Managing Editor Marc Valles declined, explaining that "off the record" requires an agreement between the reporter and the interviewee made in advance of the not-to-be-quoted statement.

Berkowitz's public apology went out on Feb. 27, 10 days after the interview and four days after it was described in vague terms in the Times-Standard. The Journal's copy came with his permission to publish it. We didn't need it. To review for Berkowitz, a more than 30-year veteran of radio broadcasting and member of Humboldt State University's journalism department, "off the record" requires an agreement between reporter and interviewee before information is shared.

The apology is full-throated regarding the N-word. Berkowitz writes: "There are words that are so steeped in hate and racism that they enflame our community when uttered; I am grateful to live somewhere that holds people accountable for what they say and do." But we wonder about the last part.

Following two days of public silence, on Feb. 25 Berkowitz spoke with Ryan Burns of Lost Coast Outpost. Berkowitz said the Times-Standard editorial describing the interview and endorsing Bohn was a "gut punch" and that he believed the paper wouldn't publish the exchange. "I couldn't freaking believe it, especially a week before the election," he told Burns. "I said, 'We're done with this conversation, right? This is off the record.'" He also claimed Valles promised not to run the quote. Both Valles and Publisher John Richmond, also present for the interview, refute this. Frankly, such an agreement would have been alarming and Berkowitz owes the paper a separate apology.

More troubling than Berkowitz pivoting to the Scaramucci defense (or the charitable but unflattering assumption that he didn't understand the "gift" Valles was offering him was a lesson in speaking off record, not silence) is his apparent belief he was owed the courtesy. Imagine even hoping the local daily paper of record would let a serious lapse in judgment slide. Conscious or not, that is privilege and taking advantage of it is not how an ally dismantles unjust systems. But in a room with two white men who wield significant power and who recognize him as an established figure in the community, Berkowitz felt comfortable asking and was later shocked to be denied.

The N-word indeed carries stigma like no other in our language. But we're old enough (as is Berkowitz) to remember when even academic discussion of racism didn't preclude non-black people quoting the word aloud. Over the decades we've shifted to euphemisms. If Berkowitz wants to dismantle racism, as he states in his apology, he had the chance in both his initial interview and his apology to address the shift toward euphemism — a change at which some bristle. Those were chances to express why the word, used to dehumanize and terrorize, is so hurtful. It's worth talking about beyond how to stay out of trouble or whether or not to forgive a white candidate for saying it.

There's an opportunity here to reflect on how language both expresses and shapes our thinking about race. We can interrogate why some non-black people fixate on saying the N-word with impunity. We can parse the context of black people reclaiming it. We can examine how non-black people avoiding the word is a tiny (and potentially valuable) taste of privilege revoked. We can compare censorship and criticism. We can address how a person can be deeply racist without uttering a single slur. We can talk about how language choices are always a negotiation of power and how we want to be perceived. And we don't actually need Berkowitz for that.

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill is the arts and features editor at the Journal and prefers she/her. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 320, or jennifer@northcoastjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter @JFumikoCahill.

Thadeus Greenson is the Journal's news editor and prefers he/him. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or thad@northcoastjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.

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