Which slur is worse: “Cracker” or the “N-Word?” After a July 2013 debate on CNN in which a panel discussed this exact question, researchers from NYU – Abu Dhabi, The Sage Colleges, and Tilburg University set out to determine why people might perceive slurs directed at some groups as more offensive than those directed at others – and if group status has anything to do with it.
P.J. Henry, Sarah Butler, and Mark Brandt first gathered over 200 college students and asked them to generate the most offensive word that they could think of for 15 target groups (like “African-Americans”, “obese people”, or “highly intelligent people”). After generating these words, participants then had to rate the offensiveness of each word, and the relative status of each target group in American society.
As expected, there was a strong negative correlation between perceived status and offensiveness – the lower in status participants perceived a group to be, the more offensive they thought that slurs directed at that group were. For example, slurs directed against European-Americans (like “cracker” or “honkey”) or men (like “dickhead”) were seen as significantly less offensive than slurs directed against the mentally disabled (e.g., “retard”), obese (e.g., “fat ass”), or African-Americans (e.g., the “n-word.”) These differences were also reflected in the perceived status of these groups. Men, European-Americans, straight people, and highly intelligent people all enjoyed perceived group statuses that averaged around 8.5 out of 9 (and the offensiveness of their group-based slurs hovered between 3 and 6 on an 11-point scale). On the other hand, groups like the mentally ill, mentally disabled, Arab-Americans, obese people, Latino(a)s, gay people, and African-Americans had average statuses below 5 on the 9-point scale, and the offensiveness of slurs against them averaged between 7 and 9 on the 11-point scale.
However, the obvious flaw in this study is its correlational nature – it is impossible to tell the causal direction, if any, that this relationship might take. Are slurs more offensive because the groups are lower in status, or do the groups possess low status because the slurs against their groups are so much worse? Or is there a separate variable entirely explaining this association?
In order to test this question experimentally, the researchers first had to somehow find a “slur” that would be completely separated from all of the ones we already know, with their historical/cultural entanglements and all of the confounding factors that would accompany them.
The researchers solved this conundrum by making up a brand new slur of their very own. Over 250 participants read a story about “creative developers,” a group in a hypothetical workplace that either make very good money, have very good benefits, get three-day weekends, and are very important and influential (high status) or make very little money, have no benefits, have to work on the weekends, and are not important or influential at all (low status). The participants then imagined hearing someone in payroll derogate one of the Creative Developers for not understanding something, finishing up by saying, “What else can you expect from a Crappo?” Crappo, as the vignette explains, is a derogatory combination of the words “creative” and “poser”. As expected, participants who thought that Creative Developers were a low-status group rated the term “crappo” as significantly more offensive than those who thought that the Creative Developers were a high-status group. Importantly, they also thought that the “crappo” in question would feel significantly more insulted, bad about himself, and angry if his group was low-status – and this difference in expected emotional reactions explained (at least partially) the difference in perceived offensiveness.
|Participants who thought that ‘Crappos’ were a low-status group rated the term as significantly
more offensive than those who thought the Creative Developers were a high-status group
Overall, group status is an important determinant in how “offensive” we perceive slurs to be. Slurs directed at lower-status groups in society are seen as significantly more offensive as those directed at higher-status groups, at least in part because we feel that lower-status group member will react to those derogatory terms with more negative emotions.
Henry, P., Butler, S., & Brandt, M. (2014). The influence of target group status on the perception of the offensiveness of group-based slurs Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 53, 185-192 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2014.03.012