October 4th, 2011
My sister is a horsewoman. She has a horse barn on her property and sometimes rents part of it out to others. One such woman who boarded her horse there became increasingly difficult. Before long my sister tired of fending off one impractical demand after another. She asked the woman to find other lodgings. That triggered more stridency. A highly unpleasant atmosphere began to build. Finally, my sister gave her an ultimatum: take your horse and your hostility elsewhere. Now! Which the woman did – but not before tattling to Sonoma County commissioners that her landlord was boarding horses without a permit. An official followed up and made it a paperwork hell for my sister. So it wasn’t entirely surprising when one day, out on the patio overlooking the pasture, my sister told the family about the angst and the crazy bad feelings the woman stirred up. We all sighed in agreement. Then my sister shook her head slowly and said, “What a cunt!”
Not long ago I was slapped around on FaceBook by a friend who disapproved of my use of the word “nigger” in a blog piece. I was lampooning an actual racist by the name of George Allen. You may recall him for the taunt Macaca. He was referring to a dark-skinned man who was following his Virginia senate campaign. Macaca is a word which in Africa means shit and, by the foul extension of racism, nigger. Kaffir is another word used in South Africa that carries all the venom of nigger. It is applied to its despised township dwellers who are brutalized by a system that makes the rules as well as the language. My sixteen year-old step-daughter urged me to read the book, “Kaffir Boy,” by a young black man who was lucky, smart, and brave enough to crawl out of the muck imposed on him by his overlords. I wonder if white students in South Africa might benefit from reading a book about one of our disenfranchised black children entitled “Nigger Boy.”
In yesterday’s news a number of commentators carefully avoided using the unedited name of a property leased by Rick Perry in the 80s as a hunting preserve. It was called “NiggerHead.” Chris Hayes on MSNBC danced around the name with his black guest, an editor for the Atlantic. Chris, embarrassed, said “N-word Head.” Then, flummoxed by the clumsy sound of it said that was the best he could do given MSNBC standards and practices rules.
Yesterday, on The View, an intense debate was started when Barbara Walters used the word “nigger” to avoid having to say “the N-word.” Joy and Elisabeth didn’t have much to say, but Whoopi and Sherri were in opposite corners. Watch the debate.
I went to high school in the fifties in Birmingham, Michigan, an upscale suburb of Detroit. I seldom heard the word “nigger” applied to the black people that came into town by bus at 7 a.m. and left at 6 p.m. each day. They were seldom even mentioned at all. However, one wealthy boy in my social group referred to his family’s maid, Cayola, with any number of epithets. He was a pretty nasty kid – he talked about her with a sneer. Still, that didn’t stop any of us from palling around with him. We used to share our Luckies and Pall Malls in the school bathrooms while complaining about each other’s “nigger-lipping” of the cigarettes. I’m not proud of that, but that’s the way kids behave when they grow up in communities that do not prize or even understand diversity.
In the Army we used the word “homos” for the guys who didn’t share our taste for the prostitutes in town. Yes, most of them were homosexuals. Some of us used the word sneeringly, others as simple descriptors. We also talked about the queers that hung around some of the bars away from the base, in Fayetteville. “Queer” was almost always used with derision. The word gay didn’t emerge until after the StoneWall Riots in the late sixties. In our platoons we knew who was homosexual and who wasn’t. But without politicians fanning the flames of homosexual identity, it had nothing of the negative charge that it does today. But like any movement towards human rights, it had to go through a rancorous pageant of nastiness, and the even fouler kaleidoscope of code words. Most obnoxious was the charade of old farts complaining that the word “gay” had been stolen from them by these unworthies. But I believe a big part of the march to fair treatment for homosexuals was the ownership of the word “queer.” Naturally, the older generation, who’d never given a damn about their treatment, were appalled by its use.
Today, a man in my coffee group was talking about Israel – excoriating the Jews for any number of crimes. There’s nothing wrong with saying Jews, as opposed to the ultra-careful “Jewish people.” But this man was saying “Jews” in a way that I found unpleasant — disrespect was oozing from the word. Hate speech is not only words, it’s also the body english applied to the words.
I will listen with respect to any of those who tsk-tsk me for writing or uttering a racist, sexist, homophobic, or anti-semitic word. But I’d like some indication that the person shushing me has some credentials – say a membership in The Southern Poverty Law Center, the ACLU, an LGBT group, or is one who avidly keeps abreast of liberal thinking as regards these areas. Yes, “liberal” – the word Republicans love to hate. But I think we will all do better as a society without the air-freshener of linguistic correctness.
It just smells fake.