Of coloreds and trannies
Recently, actress Gabourey Sidibe appeared on the Arsenio Hall show and, in the course of joking around, she used the word “tranny” multiple times. The executive director for the National Center of Transgender Equality blasted Sidibe, as did other transgender activists. Allyson Robinson, a transgender activist, wrote to the Huffington Post saying: “It’s tremendously disappointing to see Sidibe put her prejudice so callously on display like this.” Really? I can understand if someone wants to say she was ignorant, but assuming they’re prejudiced? Sidibe tweeted an apology, saying she didn’t know the word was a slur.
I didn’t either. In 2014, we’re expected to all know what is offensive to someone else at all times. It’s like driving laws. Ignorance of the law is no excuse. But frankly, when it comes to language, genuine ignorance should be. How many people are still using expressions like getting “gypped” when cheated or telling someone not to “Welsh” on a bet when someone is trying to get out of paying? Indian giver. Jew them down. That’s so gay. Ghetto. Retard. Cotton pickin’.
Let me approach the idea of ignorance from a different perspective. Years ago, an elderly white reader wrote to me after a column on race relations saying she agreed with everything I’d written and told me a touching story of how her family defended a black family that moved into their neighborhood from bigots. She added that she was raised to treat “colored people equally.” Do I find the word “colored” offensive? Yes. But in the context of her letter it was obvious she didn’t know or intend the word to be offensive. Her use of the word came from ignorance, not malice.
I stumbled into this myself when I wrote a newspaper column on mental illness. A close friend of mine has struggled with mental illness for years and that inspired me to write the column. I wrote about the myths surrounding mental illness and the prejudice against people dealing with mental issues vs. physical ones. In response to the column, a reader took me to task using the phrase “the mentally ill.” Saying “the mentally ill” is apparently offensive. I had no idea. But does it follow that I would write a column advocating for people with mental illness while wanting to offend them at the same time?
People are apparently expected to know that it’s Asian, not Oriental, African-American, not Negro or colored, undocumented immigrants, not illegal aliens, disabled, not handicapped, little person, not midget, mentally challenged instead of mentally retarded, homeless, not hobo or bum, marriage equality, not gay marriage and on and on. Some online publications have started giving the Washington Redskins the “N word” treatment by printing “R*****n.”
I’m not advocating that people go around trying to offend others. There’s no sense in being ugly to people. But I do have a problem with people treating those of us who aren’t up to speed on what’s currently in vogue like we’re bigots. There’s a difference between someone saying something offensive out of sheer ignorance vs. someone choosing certain words to be offensive and discriminatory.
Perhaps I don’t have a knee-jerk reaction to the words people use, because I look at the context. I don’t believe words are inherently bad. Whenever I see one of these dust-ups in the press because someone said something offensive on the radio or TV or on Twitter, I’m reminded of the episode of “The West Wing” called “A Proportional Response.” The president wants to hire a young black man to be his personal assistant, but is afraid of what the optics will be by having a black man carry his bags and open doors for him. Chief of Staff Leo McGarry asks the black Joint Chiefs Chairman, Percy Fitzwallace, about it. The Chairman replies that if they’re going to pay the young man a decent wage and treat him with respect, then what does he care? Then he added, “I’ve got some real, honest to God battles to fight, Leo. I don’t have time for the cosmetic ones.”