Political correctness an odd phenomenon that hasn't really gone beyond the borders of the West. The feelings behind it are starting to, maybe, for some things at least. Educated Turks try to swallow their racial bigotry in conversation (though they might still stare at foreigners of any race and find them delightful), but they're still disgusted by homosexuality. Brokeback Mountain was released in Turkey as İbne Kovboylar (Faggot Cowboys). Under-educated Turks are unabashed about their prejudices. A dear friend and his partner came to visit Istanbul, my friend anxious to show off the place he'd left after living here for seven years. His partner,S, is Black, and we were followed by open-mouthed stares and barely concealed whispers and giggles everywhere we went. Passing some crowds on a narrow stairway, a few girls squealed and jumped away from S, and a few steps down we had to slap away some villagers who were trying to touch his hair. S is a really striking guy, and well-built, and because he was wearing a soccer jersey we tried to convince ourselves everyone just thought he was a famous footballer. But really, my friend and I were ashamed, both at the behavior of people in our adopted city, and at ourselves for recognizing that doing or saying anything would have been futile and so doing or saying nothing. Mostly. We told off a few people and were laughed at for our Turkish.
Political correctness is a linguistic quagmire. As an American, all the correct words have been pounded or shamed into me. When I was a kid, 'Negro' was as acceptable as 'Black', even polite, given the other choices, but at some point I learned to catch myself and say 'African American.' 'Handicapped' took the place of 'crippled,' then even 'handicapped' went away in favor of 'disabled,' though I really did have to draw the line at 'differently abled,' because not only is it confusing (isn't everybody differently abled from everybody else?), it seems somehow patronizing, like calling mentally retarded people 'special.' I'm sure 'retarded' is a word I'm not supposed to use either, but 'mentally disabled' is just too vague. 'Latino' became a convenient way to avoid lumping everyone south of the border into the same label of 'Mexican,' and also to avoid the taint of slur the word 'Mexican' had acquired in Southern California where I lived for awhile, the way 'Jew' is a slur in some contexts but not in others.
But since I've been in Turkey almost six years, a lot of this linguistic self-training has gone out the window. Euphemism and avoidance doesn't work for non-native speakers. It's a huge trap for teaching English, and will be met with blank stares in everyday conversation. My students usually picked up and used the word 'nigger,' probably from American films and TV, and really never could quite get why they shouldn't use it. I don't know any bad words for Black people in Turkish. The word I know, 'zenci' seems to be as bad or neutral as the speaker wants it to be, depending on the accompanying intonation and facial expression. 'Crippled' is another word learners often come up with. Colloquial Turkish uses 'sakat,' so 'crippled' is the word their dictionaries tell them. Same for 'backward' to mean retarded, as they usually hunt for 'geri' to describe retarded people. I have to use 'geri' in Turkish to describe my uncle with Down's Syndrome because I don't know another word, but 'geri' seems unnecessarily cruel. Turkish does have 'engelli' for disabled or handicapped, but it's very general. It's mostly used in official contexts (like on the rare handicapped toilet) and has a sound of official euphemism to it, and so isn't used very often in everyday speaking.
The lexicon of political correctness represents a type of avoidance, but what to avoid and why to avoid it is very much culturally bound. It's partly an issue of politeness, but it also is tied to how we label each other, and our feelings about how we want others to see us based on the labels we use. The first time I heard a student say 'nigger,' I really jumped. She was an intelligent, genteel, and well-educated young woman, and I had to remind myself that she wasn't aware of the cultural baggage of that word. 'It's a rude word,' I explained. 'It's argo.' Argo, I should note, is used in Turkish as a general word for slang, but slang carries a different weight here, in that it's bad or low language, used often by men and rarely by women, and rarely by men in front of women. So this explanation was enough to keep this young woman from saying 'nigger' again, but what about the men in the class? Calling it argo is hardly a way of discouraging them from using it, especially given the context they learned it in, which was likely a slick American film with cool Black guys calling each other 'nigger'. Not only does it look to them like a cool bit of American slang, it looks like the proper thing to call Black people, since that's what Black people appear to call each other. To Turks, it doesn't make a bit of sense that Black people can use a word with each other freely, but White people are forbidden from speaking it, and everyone gets really shocked and offended to hear anyone but a Black person say it.
To say that 'nigger' is rude hardly covers the problem with the word, but explaining the history and cultural context of it is just something you can't really do well with a lower-level English class in a 50-minute lesson. You're just asking to place yourself in a minefield you can't explain yourself out of. Once I told a class that it was a word only stupid people use, like George W. Bush, which earned me a laugh, but still didn't explain why only White people can't say it. A more authoritarian approach, like "It's a very, very bad word and you should never, ever use it no matter what," might work for some students, but one or two are always bound to ask "Why?" It's a good question. 'Nigger' is bad, but it's not a swear word. And as they've picked up from Hollywood, it's only bad for some people.
Then, of course, there's the inevitable follow-up question of how to refer to Black people. As I mentioned before, at some point in my life, probably around high school, I learned to say 'African American' instead of 'Black,' because 'Black' can be seen as a slur in certain contexts, and it's not always clear what those contexts are. However, outside of America, this fails. 'African American,' to me, refers to a very specific group of people, that is, Americans descended from Africans who were brought over as slaves 200 years ago. It can be extended to refer to more recent (Black) African and Caribbean immigrants to America. It refers to a very specific genre of literature, art, and film. Outside of America, though, it's very confusing. Obviously, you can't refer to Nigerian immigrants in Turkey as 'African Americans.' Nor is it appropriate for Black British people, or Black Turkish people descended from Africans who've been here since Ottoman times. And since 'African American' is a way of avoiding saying 'Black', it can't be used in America to refer to White immigrants from Africa, or even North Africans.
In an ESL classroom in America, students would probably be taught to use 'African American,' and that's fine. Inside of America, teachers would probably be discouraged from telling students to say 'Black,' because it's too slippery to know in which contexts it's okay. But here, I do teach them to say 'Black' and I do my best to make them understand why they shouldn't say 'nigger.' In the end, there's a very Western notion of political correctness, and the complicated processes we have of labelling ourselves and other people in order to avoid using labels, or in order to avoid using labels that can be thought of as rude or offensive even when the people who might be offended aren't around to have their feelings hurt. To a Turk, though, this process of avoidance labelling doesn't make any sense at all, and I have to admit it's starting to make less and less sense to me the longer I'm outside of America. Obviously, I know what's a slur and what isn't, and I know I'm not a bigot, but when talking to non-native speakers and wanting to be understood, being too delicate, or using culturally-bound linguistic delicacies undermines what you're trying to say, causes confusion, and in the end, is best abandoned.