What’s in a name?

Over the past year, reading the news carried me all the way from disbelief to despair before I ran out of angst. I keep abreast of major news events (the ones the online mainstream media, as funneled through my personal algorithm, tells me about, anyway. I’ve canceled my subscriptions to alternative sources like The Intercept).

Often I listen to National Public Radio when I drive, and if I’m not interested in what they’re offering I switch to the conservative talk show hosts on the AM channels – Savage, Limbaugh, Hannity. Sometimes they repeat themselves on an endless loop as they troll for callers, but the people who call in can be interesting. These are the folk who, for now, are driving our national bus. I’d rather know what they think than not.

Superman stopping a bus
Apparently Wonder Woman didn’t ever stop a bus from plunging to its doom while someone was around with a camera, so here’s Superman instead. She’d have done the same, except with one hand. And without a cloak to obscure the view. And afterwards she’d have parked the bus alongside the curb. (Source)

I have friends, mainly on Facebook, who share articles and rants. Sometimes I join the conversation, but more and more I just hit like/love/ha-ha/sad face/angry face and move on. More and more, I’m an observer rather than a participant. I feel as though I’ve been thrown from the bus and am lying, stunned but (as far as I know) intact, watching it spin toward the cliff edge. And while I’d like to care – or, better, release my Inner Wonder Woman to stop the bus from going over – what I really feel most of the time is curiosity. I wonder what’s going to happen next. I wonder what you think about it, and why your thoughts are not the same as mine.

We’ve ditched the Paris Agreement? Oh well, at least now corporations and communities are taking direct responsibility for limiting climate change, and maybe we’ll all be okay, and even if we aren’t I can’t change anything, although I’m thinking of setting up a beehive, so that’s something. We need bees.

Jeff Sessions is all set to enforce heavier penalties for drug use and cancel states’ rights to legalize marijuana, provided he doesn’t resign or get fired first, and also he thinks America is light on crime and he wants to change that? Wow … I wonder how it’s possible for someone to look so cute and be so horrible. Maybe he was teased and bullied in the schoolyard for looking like an elf, and now he’s compensating by behaving like a gremlin. Bullying has consequences.

A whole bunch of people are suing Trump for violating the emoluments clause in the Constitution? And James Comey’s testimony to Congress destroyed / vindicated Trump? And Trump may (or may not) fire Robert Mueller, as he may (or may not) have the power to do? And if he does he will definitely (not?) be impeached? Huh. Well, at least between all that and Twitter he’s being kept busy. Maybe this is good. If Mike Pence moves into the White House, everything will calm down and shit will get done.

To stay grounded I watch a lot of late night talk shows on YouTube. Trevor Noah is my favorite (just to give a fellow South African a shout-out), but I enjoy Stephen Colbert and Seth Meyers too. Between them they almost make the news palatable.

Lately I’ve been watching Bill Maher. He’s arrogant, but I like the way his bullshit meter swings left as well as right. Like me, he believes in free speech for everyone, not just the people who think as he does; and he’s impatient with snowflakes and political correctness, as am I. So it’s been interesting to watch him navigate the turbulence following his use of a “racial slur” during an interview on his show.

He’s invited quite a few people, mainly black celebrities, to come onto his show and berate him. And while he squirms and occasionally protests, he takes what they dish up and he eats it.

This has been unexpected. I’ve been waiting for him to say, “Oh come on – it’s a word, that’s all. I haven’t enslaved anyone. Get over it!” I’m pretty sure that’s what I would have said. I’d have apologized, and then if they continued to fuss at me I’d have rolled my eyes and left them to flap their mouths at my departing back.

It’s not that I don’t know words, the names we call people, can hurt. I’m a woman, I’m a foreigner living in Smalltown America, I’m fat; I know how it feels to be smacked with a slur. But I believe – that is, I have believed – that someone who uses racist, sexist or otherwise denigrating language is really saying more about themselves than about the subject of their attack. So what’s the big deal? Let’s move on – right?

And mealy-mouthed euphemisms – ugh, I hate them! You don’t “drop the F-bomb” – you say fuck. You don’t call someone the B-word – you call her a bitch, and then – depending on whether she’s a ball-breaking bitch or a frigid bitch – she either rips your head off or says, “Really? You say that as though it’s a bad thing.”

So this word that Maher used … ehh. It’s icky, but it’s just a word. It’s just a noun people used to use. At least he was honest – he didn’t say it by using a euphemism to pretend he wasn’t saying it. And slavery was terrible, no joking matter, so that was a mistake – but it’s over, right? Both slavery and Maher’s joke – they’re over. Past and done.

Except … I remember the pure searing rage I felt, years ago when I was sick with longing for home, when the Hubbit and I were guests at a Thanksgiving dinner. The conversation shifted to reparation and how idiotic it was all these years after slavery was over, and somebody commented, “Weelll they oughta be grateful we enslaved ’em – otherwise they’d still be stuck in Aaaafricaaa.” These people, these buffoons who knew nothing about my beautiful home, so much richer and deeper and more alive than this flimsy America with all its flags and silly nationalistic rituals – how dared they say her name with such contempt?

And I remember the anger I still feel when I’m editing a report for a South African client, and I have to refer to black people as “Africans” as though I, being white, am not African, even though my ancestors have lived there since 1665. As though my grandparents and great-grandparents, and now I and my daughter, were ghosts, our lives without substance or meaning. As though we are illegitimate and homeless.

Thinking about it, I begin to understand that anger and hurt aren’t always subject to common logic, but that doesn’t make them any less real.

This morning I was lying in bed, yawning and flicking through the news on my phone, when I noticed my feed contained something new from Bill Maher – an interview with Ice Cube.

Full disclosure: I cannot stand rap, and I think Ice Cube is a stupid name for an adult; I don’t care how cool he thinks he is. Also, I was about bored with watching rich, successful “African” Americans (light brown people who have never lived in Africa) huff and puff over a two-word slip of the tongue. But I didn’t feel like getting up and I’d already watched the other late night shows I follow, so I clicked on it. You should too.

Seriously … If you let your eyes flick over the video without stopping to watch it, go back. (If you can’t see it, just check YouTube for “Bill Maher and Ice Cube”.) It’s part of this post and I need you to hear it, otherwise what I’m trying to communicate here will fall like a pebble down a well.

You done? Good. Thank you.

Okay … so, I still don’t understand why, if I don’t agree with the politically correct (as defined by black people) narrative, I’m accused of white privilege as though it’s something I’ve done. I don’t understand why blacks cling so tightly to past injustice instead of putting it behind them, living in the present and focusing on the future.

I don’t understand what it’s like to be dark-skinned in America today. It seems to me that when you read the news or watch late night talk show hosts, you don’t get the same message I do, and I don’t understand why. I can’t grasp how it feels to know your grandmother used to be someone’s property. I cannot comprehend your anger, your fear, your hurt.

But I understand this: I don’t have to use euphemisms if I don’t want to. If I want to speak about something, I can call it by its full name. But there is one word – the one that stabs like a knife – that I have never needed, and to which I relinquish all claim.

I understand now. That word is not mine to use.


Talk to me. I’d like to know what you think.


Author: Belladonna Took

Well into my second half-century and still trying to figure out what to be when I grow up. Born South African, naturalized American, perpetually at risk of losing my balance and landing ass-first in the Atlantic.

15 thoughts on “What’s in a name?”

  1. I, like you, loathe the word which I have never in my life used. As a new teacher, nearly 50 years ago, in an inner city school, I was shocked to wander in on a conversation between some lovely black coworkers, who were liberally using the word in reference to one another. All agape, and in the innocence of youth and inexperience, I asked them why they used that term. They explained, in essence, that it is a family term, and while we shared many things in common, I was not a member of that particular family and had no right to usage of that word. So, based on that kindly tutori g, you are entirely right! The word is not ours to use.

    Enjoyable, thoughtful post, as always!

    Love you!


    1. Hello, Kappalorum – thanks for stopping by. I’m glad you understood what I was trying to say! I know I should always give a post time to percolate before I publish, but by the time I’d finished writing this one it was past 2.00am and I just wanted to be DONE. I woke in a cold sweat at the memory of thoughts clumsily expressed, and was relieved to find that I hadn’t – as far as I know – offended anyone I care about. I could take the time to do a bit of a rewrite, and now I think I’ve managed to say what I want to say.


  2. I actively avoid politics for my own sanity. The SQO, on the other hand, lives for them. While he’s tearing down Trump’s latest Twitter-rant, I’m running scenarios in my head on exit plans if the bloody revolution comes to fruition.

    I still don’t think the US will come to full-on blood in the streets in my lifetime, though. Our population has entered the apathy phase of civilization – so things will continue to degrade as the power-mongers at the top become more bold and solidify their hold. We’re at least a full generation shy of having enough popular rage to be useful to a revolutionary-figure to tap and focus.

    Currently, the rage is there…but it’s scattered amongst multiple targets. Divide and conquer is still the lawful strategy of the day.

    All I can do is keep my head down, my shields at full strength, and keep pouring my healing energies in the tiny corner of the Earth I’ve adopted.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi Peg – thanks for stopping by! I used to avoid reading the news – crazy for a former journalist, but true – because it always seems so ephemeral. What’s the point of getting all worked up today about something that, by tomorrow, will have changed or been forgotten? But since the last election I’ve been mesmerized, and now I’m just tired! You’re wise to focus on your small corner. It’s what I’m trying to do.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Hey Belladonna, I love your breathtaking honesty and exquisite use of the language and brain behind the English language. Bless you and please keep these outstanding Blogs coming. You have power impact and change for the better the culture by the skillful use of your ‘pen’.


    1. Wow, DJ, thank you for the encouragement. The silence in response to this post has been deafening, I’ll be frank. And while I write for me – sometimes, as in this case, because I’m trying to figure something out – when the response is small I find myself second-guessing myself. Did I fail to communicate? Or are the thoughts I’m communicating the problem? If I failed to communicate, I want to know, because I want to get it right. If the thoughts are “wrong” … well, that’s okay. I know I don’t follow a politically-correct track; having rejected the “conservative” track I’m still determined to figure out what I think one idea at a time. Life – I mean, human social systems – is so complex; there are so many shifting shades of grey. It would be easier just to buy into what my tribe is saying, but I don’t want to. I want to know WHY I think things.

      Anyway … thanks.


  4. I have stopped looking at Facebook, gotten off of Instagram, and unfollowed most people from Twitter. I just decided that I’d rather look at the news myself and decide who or what I believe versus everyone else telling me. I’m a much happier person now. It’s a shame that mediums like that that have proven their worth have just basically turned into cesspools of dumb people’s opinions.


    1. I’ve never done either Instagram or Twitter, and have no intention of joining either. I went off FB for several years, but in the end it’s really the only way to keep properly in touch with people I care about. I spend way too much time on there, though … It’s quite the timesuck! I like the fact that my friends share news articles … I have friends and family pretty much across the spectrum, socially, economically and politically, in both South Africa and the US. Even if I just scan what they share, it helps me avoid confirmation bias. But those people who flood me with toxic memes? (And ALL memes are toxic!) Nope – I unfollow them. Life’s too short for that.


  5. Hey Belladonna, nice to see your posts show up in my Reader feed! It’s very intriguing what you wrote about some very hot topics. As pertains to Bill Maher. I don’t agree on a lot with with him politically, but I do appreciate his refreshing refusal to bow to the PC police and just say whatever pops in to his head.

    Should he have called himself a House N*****? No, I thought that was inappropriate, but I don’t think he should be fired for it. I have to give him credit too for having guests on specifically to excoriate him for it.

    I think too much emphasis is given over insulting words as it is. Of course there are such things as manners and decorum and just respecting others enough to try not to offend them. But, people will always cross boundaries and say stupid stuff, or do so unknowingly because it seems even just breathing the wrong way will offend someone, somewhere. Getting upset about it just gives the offender power over your well being.


    1. Hi, Tricia, thanks for taking the time to comment!

      I also get irritated by people who are constantly whining about their hurt feelings; it’s such snowflake behavior. So many people – liberals and conservatives – just can’t stand to hear people express views that differ from theirs, and they’ll go nuts trying to stop them. I intentionally seek out contrarian opinions because I am determined not to get suckered by confirmation bias. The result is that I come to my opinions by a slow and arduous process … I’m grateful to have this little corner of the blogosphere to help me figure things out!

      That said, I do think it’s not my job to decide what someone else should be hurt and offended by. So while it’s taken me a long time to understand how much hurt and anger that word causes … well, it’s certainly no hardship to me to step away from the word. And if you’re wondering why it was even necessary for me to come to this point, I’ve wanted to write about euphemisms for a while, and had every intention of using that word as well, because the thing about euphemisms is that they are dishonest. If you’re going to use a word, use it – don’t try to camouflage it in niceness. What I have come to understand is, some people may dislike my occasional use of profanity, but that’s their problem, and if they choose to consider me vulgar, I don’t care. But now that I understand that this word causes actual and real pain, I will never use it. There is no justification for doing so.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hey Belladonna, I do so appreciate your tenacity in not getting sucked in to confirmation bias I wish more people did the same. Sometimes I need to be better at it too!

        I agree too that I would never use that word either. Sometimes I think our culture can get too caught up in symbolism over substance, but that’s a whole different blog post all together. Cheers!

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Weird, I tried to comment. Wrote out this long, thoughtful and personal response…and then got a WordPress error saying, “Sorry, this comment could not be posted.” I suspect it is because I quoted you saying the ‘B-word’. Political Correctness is enforced by the law of the machine now. The universe is funny that way.


      1. Apparently it will let you cuss on mine. I have no standards! I’m camping right now, I’ll have to dazzle you with my insights when I’m back in civilization. And showered.

        Liked by 1 person

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