About a week ago, my friend Juliette Wade posted a blog entry about using racial insults in your writing. It was interesting timing for me because I've been struggling with the use of racial slurs in the story I'm currently working on. Juliette's scenario isn't quite the same as mine; she was talking about inventing slurs for made-up races and beings, while my story involves a near-future Earth fifteen years after a vicious war with China. But what she had to say sure resonated!
When writing about the near future, about people who actually exist, racial slurs can be hurtful, rude, and offensive. My dilemma is that some of the characters would surely use that kind of language, would intentionally hurt with words, but I don't wish to do any of that. That leaves me with three options--
1. Write the dialog in such a way as to avoid racial slurs all together. There's no risk of being offensive in this case, but I'd be sacrificing some of the veracity of the dialog. I know that people would come up with horrible racial insults, especially after a devastating war. Besides, it robs me of the chance to develop characters through their dialog.
2. Come up with realistic racial slurs and have characters use them. This is the most realistic option, but also the most offensive. I actually googled a list of racial slurs, which was one of the most distasteful bits of story research I've ever had to do. I even played around with inserting one or two into my story, but ultimately removed them. I felt like I needed to wash my hands each time I typed them, and if I wasn't comfortable typing the words, I imagine that they wouldn't sound convincing to my readers.
3. Use toned-down language that is derogatory but not outright offensive. This is the best compromise, I believe, but it doesn't come easy. So I have a character say, "Hey China-girl, come here." I'm hoping that the context of the story, plus the imperious and condescending dialog itself, make it clear the term China-girl is intended to be degrading. In my mind, it's sort of like having a white supremacist character address a black man as "boy." It gets the intention of insult across without having to use the n-word or something equally offensive.
Ultimately, how a writer handle the use of offensive dialog is a personal decision. It's a function of what you're comfortable with, but it's a complex function whose amplitude varies with story context. If I had been writing hardcore military SF, I might have felt more comfortable with soldiers using terms equivalent to gook or nip or kraut from previous wars. But calling a twenty-year-old girl some of the words I found in my web search just didn't feel right. People can be very cruel, but that doesn't mean I have to repeat it!