Tag Archives: political correctness

What’s in a name?

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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.

 

Skin-deep storytelling

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I was just off visiting one of my favorite bloggers and her latest post got me thinking … and my thinking has got me all upset and bothered and pondering uncomfortable questions.

She wants to know, where are the kids’ books with non-white heroes? And she makes the point that, while there are books about black kids, in almost every case the fact that they’re black adds a whole chunk of extra Stuff to the story. Usually, it’s not just a story the way “James and the Giant Peach” is the story of a boy who has an adventure. The kid’s color almost always matters.

So my first thought, on reading this, was to wonder how much of the issue was inherent in the way these stories are written, and how much had to do with Stuff already floating around in the reader’s head. Could it be that when the main character is white, you don’t think about their whiteness because that’s the norm in Bookworld, so you simply identify with them, and focus on the action? Seems to me that might be part of what happens. Whether the reader was white or black (or whatever), the very fact that a hero or heroine was Not-White would make them unusual. You would notice. You would wonder whether there was another layer of meaning hidden in the Other-colored skin. You would be alert to cultural signals, speech patterns, other indicators of Not-Whiteness, and if the author got them wrong you wouldn’t like it.

When does the hero's skin start to matter?

When does the hero’s skin start to matter? (Source)

This got me to wondering when it starts to matter. White kids obviously don’t notice the whiteness of characters. Do they notice not-whiteness? And what do black kids think when they read book after book about white kids? If nobody points it out, do they care that Snow White is an unusually attractive shade of pinkish beige, while they are not?

I find myself remembering an incident that shocked me when the Girl Child was at preschool. It was a Montessori preschool – in other words, featuring parents with liberal opinions about matters such as educational philosophy – in an upscale neighborhood (the Girl Child fit right in, but my battered little no-name-brand car looked pretty silly when I pulled up between the Mercs and Beemers to pick her up). Maybe 10% of the kids were black, and they all played together just fine. And then one day when I picked her up, the sweet man who tended the grounds waved goodbye to her, and she stuck her nose in the air and refused to wave back. Because he was black.

It was a long time ago and I have forgotten just how I reacted, but I remember feeling nauseated, wondering where in Hell she’d picked up that ugly piece of nasty. I remember saying, “But some of your friends are black!” and how she just rolled her eyes and told me that was “different”. They were kids. He was black. The end.

So much for the real world. What do kids see when they read story books? Could we make Jack the Giant Killer black, and not change the essence of the story? Would the result be a politically correct version of an old European fairy story? Or would it be blackface?

Anyway, this got me wondering whether I could write an ordinary adventure story or fantasy in which the hero or heroine is black, and get it right. Because a kid is just a kid, right? That’s what I want to believe … and yet … we are all so much a part of our families, our neighborhoods, our culture. From our earliest days we are immersed and soaked and pickled in the worldview, assumptions, expectations, fears, beliefs of our family and community. Even if we consciously reject everything we are taught, I don’t know that it’s possible to climb into an Other-colored skin and know how to wear it.

I lived for two years as a teacher in a poor rural South African community, where the only white people were my daughter, another woman who lived separately from us, and I. We were fully part of the community. We shared an outside toilet with our neighbors, ate the same sort of food as they did, went in and out of each other’s homes, prayed, argued, worried, grieved and celebrated together. I remain in contact with several of my former pupils. Their children call me Granny, and I wouldn’t hesitate to call on them if I needed help.

Yet I really don’t know that I could write a convincing story from inside the head of a black African kid. And I don’t understand this failure of imagination and empathy. Can I imagine being a desperately poor, or fabulously wealthy, or superpower-endowed white kid? You bet! Can I give that white kid black friends who are also fully-developed characters each with a unique voice? No problem – in fact that’s an integral part of the book I’m working on at present. Can I imagine being a black kid growing up in an ordinary black home with the spoken and unspoken everything that generations of racism means to my family, my future, who I am, how I think – can I get out of my white head and into theirs? I don’t know, but I suspect – I fear – that I could not. And I don’t know whether that is because I am lacking, or because it really isn’t possible.

And even if I did – if I were to try – what would readers think of my story? Would they assess it simply as a work of fiction – well written or not, believable or not, enjoyable or not? Or would I face the hostility due to an ignorant trespasser on sacred ground?

And, you know, thinking about all this just makes me so. Damn. Sad.

It shouldn’t matter.

It shouldn’t matter.

It shouldn’t matter.

But God help us, it does.

[UPDATE: I posted the link to this video of a white police officer sitting on a bikini-clad teenage girl to restrain her, while cursing and waving a gun at other teens. Apparently a party “got out of control” when a large group of black teens showed up in a predominantly white, upscale neighborhood. The video, taken by an observer, is out there somewhere but not where I could find it during a short search. I’m sure you get the idea, however … We’re talking about kids here, not hefty 18 and 19-year-olds, and a cop who thinks the best way to calm them down is to wave a gun. Not okay. I don’t care who did what, that’s simply poor policing.]

So now it’s your turn. What do you think? I really want to know.

Tain’t fair!

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I was just browsing in a procrastinatory way through some of the blogs I follow, and I found this:

equality-does-not-mean-justice

First, it’s important that you see this picture as I did. What I see is a fence with a long horizontal brown strip across the top of it. That strip is part of the fence – okay? Fine. Thank you.

In scenario A, each kid has the same box but only one can see over the fence. (Unfair!) In scenario B, the boxes have been distributed such that each kid is equally unable to see over the fence. (Remember, brown horizontal strip = top part of the fence!) (Fair! {big smiley face})

Are you kidding me?

How about we posit some different scenarios. In these, the tall kid keeps his box and continues watching the game.

Scenario C: The littlest kid gets off his box, and the middle-sized kid takes it. Maybe Little Guy is bored with staring at the fence and wants to do something more suited to his level of ability and development. Or maybe the middle-sized kid kicks him off it. We can even imagine a scenario in which the the tall kid kicks the little kid off the box and gives it to the middle-sized kid. However it works out, you then have two kids watching the game, and the third one doing something else.

In scenario C, the little kid could run screaming for mommy, because “It’s NOT FAIR!” Or he could wander off and play with the puppy. (Yes, there’s a puppy. It’s off having fun and doesn’t care less about watching a game when it can chase/lick its own balls.) Either way, it’s important to remember that all the little kid has to do is wait a bit and, guess what, He Will Get BIGGER. Yes! In approximately the same amount of time that it took the biggest kid to grow tall enough to see over the fence while standing on only one box, the littlest kid will also become able to do exactly the same thing. All he has to do is continue to grow!

And then there’s scenario D, which is my personal favorite. In that scenario, the two bigger kids persuade the littlest one to give up his box. They then help the littlest kid get up onto the biggest kid’s shoulders, after which the middle-sized kid stands on two boxes. After a while, they all go inside for some ice cream, and then they play with the puppy.

Looking at this a different way … If conditions had been “fair” in the primordial sludge, do you think anything would have bothered to crawl out of it?

What do you think about politically correct memes about fairness and justice? Do you think there might me more than two options to choose from?