• author
    • Kelvin Wade

    • February 6, 2014 in Columnists

    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.”

      • Maya North

      • February 6, 2014 at 10:11 am
      • Reply

      Many years ago, I had some snarky politically correct (which applies to either side of the political canyon) type tell me that intent meant nothing — that only the effect counts. I beg to differ. I have been hurt unintentionally and hurt with vicious intent and it makes an enormous difference. Add to it, my newly found human being card, restored after my 100 lb weight loss, and I know a great deal about people using insulting language either intentionally or due to ignorance. I have to tell you, unintentional or through ignorance is forgivable — intentional, not so much. If people use a term that hurts, inform them of what is preferred in a gentle and respectful manner and most are glad to know what to do. I inadvertantly used the word “dummy” while referring to one of those educational books and my hearing impaired friend said “Please don’t use that word. It’s a bullying word they use on deaf kids.” I was aghast because I’d had no clue, but he just shrugged and said “I figured you didn’t know.” And that was the end of it. It’s a self-indulgence to tromp all over the ignorant and well-intentioned with vengeful and self-righteous zeal, but you get no brownie points for that with me. If you actually want to make social progress, gentle and respectful education is the way to go. 🙂

      • Ralph

      • February 6, 2014 at 10:20 am
      • Reply

      I am curious. Who decides who is called what? Who decides what is acceptable and what is not? Let’s use “unregistered immigrants”. Are they not illegally in the United States. Do I seriously care what they think about what I call them? And whatever ‘society’ decides to call a citizen of a different race, are we not all equally Americans? Each generation decides what a person’s race should be called, and each succeeding generation becomes more and more a victim, and now we are a victim of words. Will I eventually be called a “lighter pigmented, European derived, non-demoninational, conservative, independent, military veteran, age challenged, physically challenged, financially challenged….and the list goes on. Should we, as a melting pot of a nation, pay more attention to more impotant subjects instead of how to describe a persons heritage?

        • Kelvin

        • February 6, 2014 at 5:48 pm
        • Reply

        Hence my last paragraph. In my mind there are far more important things. At the same time I have no interest in being a jerk to people for no reason. I don’t think someone not wanting to be referred to by an ethnic slur is asking too much.

    • I think I have known always certain phrases were not to be used. You are taught those things at an early age from your parents or your community. As for Jew it down, that has been derogatory forever. I had a friend once call and ask about that very phrase. She had used it her whole life. She was Italian and knew all those slurs but not this one. I told her how it started and that it should never be used. I tend to think it is ignorance of the old ones and not acquiring the knowledge on the new ones. I am been aware of the phrases you mentioned forever. Some just take plain old common sense to me.

        • Kelvin

        • February 6, 2014 at 6:00 pm
        • Reply

        That’s precisely my point. You can’t assume that everyone knows these things. They don’t. We can’t assume that everyone is taught these things at an early age. What I’m about to mention here is something I originally included in the column but took out for length. Interestingly, I had a friend who always said, “I Jewed the guy down and got a great price.” I never thought it was offensive and neither did he. In fact, I’d never heard the expression from anyone but him. And when he said it, I assumed it was some street slang. I never envisioned the word he was using as ‘Jewed,’ I heard it as, “I’ve gotta joo the guy down.” I thought it was some made up word like ‘mojo’ or something. When I found out what it was and told him, he was shocked, as I was. If you don’t know, you don’t know. I’m glad I never used the phrase because if no one told me, they’d just assume I was anti-Semitic.

    • I meant to say above my Italian friend know all the ones directed at being Italian.

    • I agree, Kelvin. Back in the day a faggot wasn’t necessarily a bath house homosexual. We called our friends faggots to tease them. Language is so slippery and culture changes at internet speed that acceptable terms of yesterday are not acceptable now. By the way- nice West Wing reference!

    • Very good Kelvin. I, out of ignorance used to spout such words and told gay jokes along with the rest of them. I didn’t know my brother was gay until he had enough of my petty humor. One day he walked away and I haven’t seen or heard from him since. Now 25 years later, he has never seen my son, he doesn’t know our other brother passed away, I miss him terribly, and want him to come home to me. 🙁

        • Kelvin

        • February 12, 2014 at 5:06 pm
        • Reply

        Wow. That’s deep. So sorry. I hope your paths cross in the future and you can develop a good relationship. My three brothers are my rock. Who knows? Perhaps the reason we all get along so well is we don’t spend that much time together! But you shared something really deep and heartbreaking there. I can only hope you find your brother.

    • I love this column, because I get left behind on what’s acceptable and what’s not. I know it’s unacceptable to say “retard” any more – one of my favorite words, and NEVER did I mean it as a slam to the developmentally disabled. Oh wait, I can’t say “developmentally disabled” anymore. Developmentally challenged? What is the unoffensive term these days?
      I miss saying “retard” – I used it interchangeably with “idiot” and “moron”, and nobody has a shitfit over those words.

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