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Wednesday, August 3, 2011

When is a racist not a racist?

So it's seventh grade, and one of my classmates throws something at another classmate's head. The other classmate says something like "Hey, cut it out, jerkoff." The teacher gasps in shock at her inappropriate language, and my classmate is at a loss. She's got no idea that jerkoff isn't an okay thing to say; jerk isn't a bad word, off isn't a bad word, but jerkoff is? Why? Who said?
My sources aren't clear on whether jerk and jerkoff are etymologically related, but if they are, it's a distant relation. The Online Etymology Dictionary says that jerk comes from carnival slang. Sometimes, traveling carnivals would visit towns too small for their own water tower, and the carnival folk would have to procure their own water from a trough or creek. Such towns came to be called jerkwater towns, because the carnies would have to jerk in their own water. People from jerkwater towns eventually became jerks, which I imagine was something like a hick. But, the Online Etymology Dictionary points out, the fact that the word is close to jerkoff probably didn't hurt its popularity.
All of which is to say that I'm not 100% sure Pat Buchanan meant disrespect to president Obama when he referred to Obama as Al Sharpton's "boy" on MSNBC the other day. I mean, I'm sure Buchanan knows that boy can be a very offensive racial slur when said a certain way. During and after slavery, people often referred to African American men of any age as boy, designating them as less than men. Racists still use the term in that way, but when they do, it's usually with a certain intonation.
I'm not sure Buchanan meant the word in that sense. Certainly, it was a poor choice of words. But was it a racist choice of words? It's hard to say. Now, I will point out that if you listen to the entire conversation, Buchanan laughs rather heartily when Sharpton replies "he's nobody's boy, he's your president." Buchanan seems to indicate that he was using the boxing expression "boy in the ring," but I'm a) not even sure that's an actual expression, and b) not sure that's any better. There's also the fact that a minute or so later, he quite deliberately calls the president a boy again, and also refers to the president being "whipped" by an opponent. If he didn't mean it as a racial slur, he's got to be pretty damned dense. Which I'm not saying is out of the question. I would point out, however, that Buchanan has made many, many anti-minority comments in his many years in the public eye, for which he makes absolutely no apology. 

Our language is full of these racial pitfalls, though. I was in my 20s before I learned that monkey is a racist expression that people have used for folks of African descent. I use it as a term of endearment. I only recently learned that it's a racist expression that people have used for folks of Asian descent. 
The expression "call a spade a spade" is supposed to be racist as well, even though we're pretty sure that the expression doesn't have racist origins. However some folks are clearly meaning it that way when they say it. 
I never knew that referring to someone as "his/her bitch" was a reference to prison rape. I always thought it was a reference to dogs. 
Then there's colored, which used to be a polite way to say African American and is now considered a racist thing to say. Even though person of color isn't considered racist.
There's also the expression fo shizzle my nizzle. At some point, members of the hip hop community started using this expression (possibly coined by Snoop Dogg) as a variation on for sure my n----. Then people got mad when white people, most of whom had no idea what nizzle stood for, started using the expression. I mean, isn't it a little weird to make up a  basically nonsensical  expression, use it all the time, and then get mad when other people use it?
Were you aware you're not supposed to call people with developmental disabilities "kids," even if they are, in fact, children, because it's considered diminutive? I mean, I get it, and I try to be sensitive about it, but I tend to refer to anyone my age or younger as a "kid." If I say "there's this kid at work," that kid could very well be 30. Also, it's become unpopular to refer to "mental retardation" because of all the baggage that comes with the word "retarded"; we now say "developmental disability." 
At the group home where I worked, the folks who lived at the group home were once patients, then because patient implied sickness, they became residents. At some point, to remind us that the residents were people who were purchasing a service, they became clients, then consumers. By the time I left direct care, the correct expression was persons served. Here's a thought: let's call them people.
I wonder if other languages have this much baggage.

And now, a joke, which may or may not have come from my grandmother.
Two nuns are in their rooms, and below their window, some hooligans are using very foul language. The nuns complain to the mother superior, who says, "Now now, these are people who work hard all day and like to unwind at night. They're just calling a spade a spade." One of the nuns replies "They're not calling it a spade, they're calling it a fucking shovel."


Drew Hakeem-Zahir Tobias Line said...

My brain just exploded. A little Nietzsche on the ineffectiveness of language? Yes, of course. Here goes: "To use the same words is not a sufficient guarantee of understanding; one must use the same words for the same genus of inward experience; ultimately one must have one's experiences in common."

PS I always assumed "jerkoff" was a reference to actually *jerking* off somehow.

Anonymous said...

Very good article, although I'm sure hooligans everywhere will be offended.