Looking For The Right Words

Note: This post includes some derogatory language that some people might find offensive. I explain why I chose to use it again later in the post, but I’ll say it here, as well. I used these words as part of a broader analysis of language and its relationship to race and I thought that not spelling them out in full would distract from the message of the post. I apologize in advance if anyone is offended by my use of the words as they are. Please feel free to comment in the space below, to write to me using the contact form here or email me at sleepingontheedgeblog@gmail.com. Thanks again for reading.
 

I take language seriously.

I take pride in the fact that I use correct grammar and that I make spelling mistakes less often than the Cubs win the World Series.1 I still approach the quality of my writing with the same focus and intent to produce a polished product, even though this is a blog, as opposed to a research paper or journal article. You’re taking the time to read my work; the least I can do is give you something thoughtful and well-written to occupy your time.

My spoken language is slightly less organized, largely because I’m coming up with my statements on the spot. I choose my words carefully, partially because I don’t want to offend anyone and also because I’m usually trying to come up with the exact phrase that will send my message most effectively. I realize that this can be frustrating for people who have to wait through my pauses in conversation to figure out what I want to say, but that’s how I am. I don’t talk much, but when I do, I try to make my words count.
 


 

I read an article by Robert Klemko about the recent events that have occurred regarding the Miami Dolphins teammates2 and the connections to perceptions of race in our country today. To say that I “enjoyed” the piece is misleading; I feel uncomfortable stating that I took pleasure reading about the types of harassment Jonathan Martin endured from his teammates, the fact that many of the other Dolphins players and personnel have stated that Martin should have “fought back” or the types of racism Klemko, himself, has experienced in his lifetime. That being said, I did find the article thought-provoking and insightful. In particular, I appreciated Klemko’s focus on the nuances of language use by members of different backgrounds and the implicit – and sometimes explicit – rules that determine a person’s permission to use the word “nigger,”3 as well as other derogatory terms.

The key is group membership. Members of a group are “allowed” to make jokes or derogatory comments about themselves but it’s a problem when other people do it. I can make jokes about the Cubs not winning a World Series in over a century, but when the only two words the deli cashier says to me are “Steve Bartman” because he sees my work ID hanging on a Cubs lanyard, that makes him a jerk. This is obviously an inane example, but the concept is the same. I can call myself a Jew because I pick up a quarter I find on the street, but if someone else tells me they were able to “Jew someone down” to pay less money, that’s a problem.4 If one of my teenage clients is black and says to me, “What’s up, my nigga?” it would be awkward and borderline inappropriate, but that’s his choice to use that language because he “owns” it. If I said the same phrase back to him, I’d end up in the hospital and probably end up getting fired.

All this being said, I’ve never quite understood why a group would be comfortable “embracing” these derogatory concepts. If the world sees me as cheap because I’m Jewish, why would I want to perpetuate that way of thinking? The word “bitch” is pejorative but I distinctly remember female classmates of mine in high school referring to their friends as such. The idea that a group is trying to recapture a word and make it their own is flawed. “The Vagina Monologues” includes a scene in which a woman talks about reclaiming the word “cunt”  but no matter how hard women try, there will still be another person who uses it as a terrible, insulting term. “Nigga” may be a word that signifies a positive relationship, but “nigger” will never be a term of endearment, no matter how much “reclaiming” work gets done. “Nigger” will never be fully outlawed unless “nigga” is given the same treatment.
 


 

My son is right on the cusp of talking. He’s got “mama” down pat, he’ll point out every single “bus” that drives by and he’ll mimic other words you give him as best he can, like “cheese,” “uh-oh” and “light.” I know that my wife and I need to start watching our language a bit more closely if we don’t want him to walk into preschool sounding like a sailor on leave. That being said, I’m significantly less worried about him cursing than I am about him internalizing ideas about himself or other people based on the words he hears. One of the worst things I can imagine is having him come home from school and start asking questions about a stereotypical remark that was made to him or getting a call from his school that he has made a racist comment towards someone else. I understand that the fact that I’m already thinking about this means that I’ll be monitoring my own language use to make sure I’m not sending the wrong messages and that I’ll end up having conversations with him about appropriate and inappropriate language use. He needs to understand what it means if his friends are telling racist jokes. He needs to know that derogatory language is never acceptable. I’d like to think that he will feel strong enough to speak up if a teammate is being treated unfairly rather than remain silent like Jonathan Martin’s teammates did.

Even if he doesn’t have the right words, he’ll have known the right thing to say.
 
 

1. I’m a Cubs fan so I can make that joke. Also, more about this later.
2. It’s worth it to take the time to read an article or two about this. The very basic summary, in case you haven’t heard, is that Jonathan Martin, a Dolphins offensive lineman, recently left the team after claiming that he was being “bullied” by his teammates, including the line’s leader, Richie Incognito. Incognito was suspended indefinitely and then news came out on Monday that Martin is likely done for the year.
3. The Klemko article included a disclaimer at the start that explained the decision to spell out “the N-word,” rather than use a euphemism or something like n*****. I agreed with – and appreciated – their decision, as I usually feel that using placeholders is distracting. I also believe that the people who are participating in the conversation should be able to talk about a word, no matter how inflammatory, in an intelligent and professional manner without sparking controversy.
4. Jerry Seinfeld had a fantastic bit about group membership.

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