I find more hypocrisy in this current convention of “political correctness.” You can hardly say anything anymore to which someone does not take offense. When I was with The Flirtations, my colleague, Jon Arterton, used “ladies” onstage one night, and some persons of the female persuasion got all bent out of shape. I wondered, Is that a bad word now, too? I know that some women don’t like to be called “girls,” but the word should not be made taboo either. In fact, in many cases, it’s used as a term of endearment. “Girl, you are the bomb!”
The first time that The Flirtations did the Vancouver Folk Music Festival in July 1991, we had the pleasure of meeting three straight, single, English women, who called their touring acappella group Sensible Footwear and described themselves as “comedic, feminist terrorists.” We had the good fortune to share the stage at the Festival during one of our mini-concerts, and from the moment we met, we became instant friends. Sensible Footwear’s real names are Alex Dallas, Alison Field and Wendy Vousden, but the Flirts often referred to them collectively as “The Girls.” It was shorter than saying all their names or even using the group name. So it was, ‘I got a card from The Girls today’ or ‘The Girls are coming to see us in Seattle.’ There was no disrespect intended, and they didn’t mind the allusion. Besides, they, in turn, called us “The Boys.”
So after the 3-day Music Festival, the Flirts did a one-nighter at a local nightclub in Vancouver, and we invited our new friends, Sensible Footwear, to do a set in our show. I did the introductions, telling the audience how we met and all, and just before I brought them out onstage, I said something like, ‘Now I’d like you to meet The Girls…’, introduced them one by one, and they came out and did their act. But during intermission, it got back to us that some disgruntled females in the audience had taken great offense to my referring to our friends as “girls.” I don’t normally use that term, especially with people I don’t know, just for that reason, as not to offend—just like I always address women as “Ms.,” regardless of their marital status. I meant no disrespect by “girls,” and they know that. I said it that time only out of habit and not thinking about it.
Anyway, when it was time for the Flirts to go back on to finish the show, Alison did a turnabout and introduced us as “The Boys.” When I got out onstage, I took the microphone and said to Alison, ‘Who you callin’ “Boy”?!’ Of course, this broke up the whole audience and made light of the situation, also pointing out the inanity of those women’s protest. Those who don’t understand the various meanings and connotations of certain words reveal their lack of savvy rather than our sexual disrespect. When the group disbanded, Alex and Alison eventually settled in Toronto, Ontario, got married and had children. Alison since has divorced and moved back to England. Alex has remained in Toronto. I have lost track of Wendy, however, over the years.
Just recently a high school teen was called on the carpet by her principal for wearing a T-shirt with the word “FEMINIST” written across the front. This woman deemed the word to be objectionable or offensive in some way. Just like those clueless Canadians, if this stupid bitch does not know the meaning of a certain word, she should not impose her ignorance on her more enlightened students.
It should be all right, too, for people to have their own personal vocabulary preferences. Nobody has the right to decide for others what words to use to convey the same thought, especially if the word has nothing to do with them personally and is not a hurtful slur or insult to the person. So if I prefer to fart instead of “break wind” or “pass gas,” that’s my business. You can’t forbid me to use certain words.
For instance, I happen to prefer the term “bitchfight” to describe women in physical combat. But some persons consider it not to be P.C., and use the term “catfight” instead. Excuse me? Why is their term more proper than mine? They are likening women to scrapping felines while I choose to honor the dog. What’s the objection? If they want to read more into bitch other than its literal meaning, then that’s their problem. Like the aforementioned school principal, I shouldn’t be held responsible for other people’s misinterpretations. Besides, the word has lost some of its mean intent. “That outfit is bitchin’!”
If you need more justification for my choice of terms, bitch is more appropriate anyway, as it refers to a female by definition, whereas cat is gender non-specific. Alley tomcats may fight with each other, but human male street gangs don’t indulge in “catfights.” That term is used only when women are involved. Besides, women refer to themselves and each other as bitches all the time. Why is it not all right when I do it? Tina Turner took Elton John’s “The Bitch Is Back” for her own musical statement. Any woman who would resort to public pugilism probably is a bitch. I don’t feel the need to be that respectful toward her. Incidentally, there is a proposed TV series about a group of female werewolves, appropriately titled, “Bitches,” and there were two recent sitcoms, one with the title, “GCB,“ which stands for “Good Christian Bitches,” and the other is “Don’t Trust That Bitch in Apt. 23.” So there!
I wish people would lighten up and stop being so damned touchy about everything! Of course, there are nicer, less offensive ways of saying things, but some people take it to the extreme, to the point of absurdity. For example, I think it’s better to call people with disabilities “physically-challenged,” because they are, and it has a more positive connotation to it than “handicapped.” If something is a challenge, it would suggest that one is at least making some kind of effort. When you’re handicapped, it could mean that you are unable to do certain things and you’re not even going to try.
Consider that the term “disabled” is rather meaningless whenever it is used. The truth of the matter is, nobody can do absolutely everything. So that would make us all disabled in some way, wouldn’t it? Beethoven became deaf at an early age but continued to compose great music up until he died. He couldn’t hear but was disabled only in that respect. On the other hand, there are people with excellent hearing who have no musical ability whatsoever. So then, they could be considered disabled as well. Similarly, look at all of Stevie Wonder’s musical talents. He just can’t see. Since I am unable to converse fluently with anyone in any language other than English, then I have certain lingual disabilities.
“Hearing-impaired” and “sight-impaired” are nice terms, I suppose, but deaf and blind are just as good. The people who are either of those don’t seem to mind either. However, to refer to short people as “vertically-challenged” or to bald people as “follicly-challenged,” I think is taking it a bit far.
Speaking of “little people,” calling them midgets and dwarves have become taboo, although I don’t know why. They are merely defining terms for distinguishing types. Dwarfism implies some malformation or disproportion of body parts, whereas a midget is normally-formed and proportioned, they are just shorter than normal. If you are one of those types, why are you offended to be called thus? The actors portraying the Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz (1939) were all billed as midgets in the credits. I don’t think any of them took offense, as that is how they referred to themselves.
Drag queen actor Charles Busch now bills himself as a “gender illusionist,” disc jockeys/deejays are referred to as “sound designers,” secretaries have now become “administrative professionals,” butlers prefer to be called “household administrators,” and an orphanage is now a “juvenile refuge.” While driving cross-country, be sure to take notice of the “ground-mounted, confirmatory route markers,“ or “road signs,“ if you will. One TV contestant said that her occupation was a “pharmaceutical sales representative.” Isn’t that a drug dealer? And a “sexual surrogate” is really a prostitute. Then a professional matchmaker (like Dolly Levi, for one) is a kind of pimp. Many of these more polite terms are, of course, meant to be funny—like calling homeless people “urban explorers” or a person who is brain-dead, “electroencephalographically-challenged.”
The office workplace has become a hotbed of controversy especially. It’s gotten where you can hardly say anything to anybody without them taking offense or your being accused of sexual harassment. You can’t compliment anyone, you can’t flirt, even a smile or wink at a fellow worker might be misconstrued. You can’t tell any jokes or anecdotes, for they might contain something that will offend someone. While using your computer, you must be mindful of what you type. Someone might be walking by and notice an objectionable word on your monitor screen and complain to the boss. These new rules for office protocol have made for a very cold and humorless workplace, I would imagine. So another one of our most cherished rights, freedom of speech, is being gradually taken away from us by the same people who granted it to us in the first place—our dear Government.
Some whites apparently consider me to be the official spokesperson for the entire nation of People-of-Color. “What do ‘you people’ like to be called now? What is the current politically-correct term?” ‘Wipe your ass-king me for? Cow shit I know?’ I reply. I’m not the one who establishes the mores of political and social protocol for my entire race. It’s not my wont or responsibility. And not everybody is going to agree on the same term anyway. I have a name. Just refer to me by that.
But for the record, I don’t object to any of the more benign terms used to identify my people. Just as I have chosen to refer to female homosexuals as “sapphists” to distinguish them from the people who live on the island of Lesbos, I also have chosen to use “Afro-American” over “African-American,” because African does not always or necessarily mean Negro. There are various non-black nations in Africa, which are inhabited by Arabs, Jews, Dutch, English people and other Caucasian sects. A white person born and raised in Algeria, Egypt or South Africa, for example, and who later settles in the United States, could by rights be referred to as an African-American. Actor Basil Rathbone, one for instance, was born in Johannesburg to British parents but lived most of his life in Hollywood. As white as he was, I don’t expect that anyone ever thought of him as an African-American, although that is what he was. The same can be said of actor Charlize Theron. So my use of “Afro-” for black Americans then indicates a definite distinction.
But even that designation seems unnecessary. Citizens of America are simply that–Americans. Why do any persons other than whites need an identifying prefix–Asian-American, Hispanic-American, Indian-American? Whites who originated from Europe at some point are not referred to as Anglo-Americans or German-Americans or Scandinavian-Americans, etc. They are simply Americans. Why can’t we all be thus? Even the term Native American is redundant. Anyone who is from the country where they reside is a native. So I and the several generations of my family before me, having been born in this country, are Native Americans. The American Indians who are referred to with that term themselves, too, all came from someplace else originally, most likely across the Bering Strait from Asia. So I and many of us are just as “native American” as they are deemed to be. Moreover, all black people living here now are not even from Africa. There are many Caribbean islanders and other locales who have nothing to do with Africa.
Incidentally, I think that “Negro” is perfectly acceptable, since the word means black anyway, so what’s the difference? I don’t know why some of my folks still object so strongly to it. I remember the time (before the late ’60s) when to call each other black was quite insulting. Since we are all of varying skin tones and shades, when somebody called me black, I took it literally. I’d be quick to tell them that I am not black! I am brown-skinned. That Nigerian guy there is black. It took me and a lot of people I know quite a while finally to accept being called black without taking offense.
And even now the term seems so inappropriate to me. For instance, do actor Halle Berry and former Secretary of State Colin Powell look black to you? I know some “white” people who are darker than they are. In fact, very few Caucasians, if any even, are actually white. Once I accepted these terms as figurative rather than literal, they don’t have the same negative connotation as they once had. So then, “colored” people is okay with me, since that’s what we all are. (You should check out my article on Color Issues.)
Darkie, nigra and pickaninny, too, are harmless enough, just archaic. Similarly, I find no offense with the German schwartzer or the Yiddish equivalent, shvartzer, which comes from their word for black. We have also been referred to non-viciously as brother, coon, dinge, soul, spade, spook, toe, and although I don’t encourage nigger for common usage, I don’t consider it absolutely taboo either. It’s a perfectly good word for certain situations. It all depends on how it’s used and by whom.
Realize that the word itself comes from the Latin word for black: niger (with a hard g) has only a slightly different spelling and pronunciation, so how did the word become so derogatory and offensive in the first place? It wasn’t to the Romans. A black person encountered in Ancient Rome was referred to as a niger, without any malicious intent. (The whities, in turn, would be called “albus,” from which we get the word albino.)
Similarly, when Southerners and others referred to us by that term, they weren’t usually doing it as a putdown. That’s just what we were called, just like in Rome. And then there are the African country and river Niger, which does have a different pronunciation than the Latin word. It must have been some blacks themselves who started taking offense when the word was used for them. But then, some don’t like “Negro” or “colored” or any word to identify our race, and every term used, it seems that someone objects to.
It was comic actor Chris Rock who made the observation that in this day and age, the only thing that a white person cannot do without recrimination is publicly use the word nigger. They virtually can get away with anything else—lying, cheating, stealing, murder, rape, every type of abuse—even after conviction, anything they do is eventually forgiven or justified. But now when a white person makes a racial epithet in public, and especially calls somebody “the N-word,” it’s no longer accepted and tolerated as it was in the past.
It must be sobering for them to discover that there is this single word that they can’t use without reprimand and to be made to suffer the ensuing consequences of its utterance by them. They have discovered that they shouldn’t use the words niggard and niggardly either, as they sound too close to the other word. It’s advised that they use the synonyms stingy and miserly instead. So Ebenezer Scrooge, for example, is no longer a niggard.
You know, even in this instance of controversy, the whites still want to be in control. Since they are not allowed to use the N-word ever, they have forbidden anybody to use it, even black people. “If I can’t say it, then you shouldn’t be allowed to say it either.” It’s basically our word, and we can’t even use it? An episode of the ABC sitcom “black-ish” did a brilliant satirical take on the subject. For a school talent show, the youngest son of the show’s star performs a rap number which included the N-word and which he had learned from hearing his father, played by Anthony Anderson, say it often. The faculty and administration are so horrified that they proceed to expel the boy from the school. Thus begins some thought-provoking discussions which exposes the hypocrisy connected with the word.
In addition to the previous statement about its being off-limits to everybody regardless, it’s noted that white Paula Dean used the word which resulted in thousands of dollars of publicity backlash, but in her favor however, and white director Quentin Tarantino used the word numerous times in his Django Unchained and received an Oscar for it! But a little 8-year-old black kid innocently utters the word without any malicious intent and he gets expelled from school! The boy wasn’t even referring to anyone in particular. He just needed a word to rhyme with “gold-digger.“ It was also brought up that we shouldn’t be called Negroes anymore, unless one is referring to the Negro College Fund or the American Negro Theater. And we are not “colored” anymore either, unless you have to mention the NAACP. So there is a “yeah, but…” in every case. Kudos to the writers of that episode. It is right on.
So this is the situation. Like all words that someone may find offensive, it’s all about intent. How the word is used is what makes it unacceptable. Although they could use a different expression, if a black friend of mine casually said to me, “Nigga, please!” it doesn’t have nearly the effect as a white, arresting police officer ordering me to “Get in that cell, Nigger!” It’s not even the same word. Pronunciation has a lot to do with it, too. So the rule of thumb is, use the word only in private or with individuals who you know will not take offense with its utterance because the intent is not dishonorable. No one can stop anyone from using the word, but if they choose to do so, they have to be willing to suffer the consequences of their action. Caveat loquitor–Utterer beware.