March 22, 1990
Abuse of words has been the great instrument of sophistry and chicanery, of party, faction and division of society.
John Adams, 1819
Everyone has a right to decide how he wants to be classified. Usually, someone else makes that decision. However, it has become almost a full-time job to stay aware of what words don't insult someone. Even the word "honey" can be insulting to some women.
Recently the owner of the Denver Bronchos referred to football player Jerry Rice as "a Chinaman". He thought that it was a good joke; a play on the word "rice." He just wasn't aware that the word Chinaman is pejorative. There was a big flap in the media over his use of the word Chinaman. One properly refers to a person of Chinese ancestry as "A Chinese".
Scots or Scotsmen take umbrage at the word Scotchman or the expression "he's Scotch", meaning parsimonious. Scotch Tape sticks in their craw. However, Scotch plaid or Scotch whiskey is OK.
I am not up on what one is now supposed to call someone of Mexican decent. Hispanic really refers to a common language rather than a nationality or culture. Chicano seems to have almost gone by the boards. However, Spic or Greaser are definitely out, as is calling everyone who speaks Spanish a Mexican.
What do you call what used to be known as an American Indian? Is it Native American? To be on the safe side, I use specific designations such as Ute, Navajo, etc.
A Jew doesn't mind being called A Jew, as long as the word isn't used as an epithet. He takes umbrage at the expression "Jew someone down", or being called a Kike, Sheeney or Dirty Jew Bastard.
The words "Jewess" or "Negress" are pejorative since the suffix "ess" is usually reserved for non-human female animals.
A person of African ancestry, no matter how remote that ancestry happens to be, now prefers to be called Black, no matter what his or her skin color happens to be. This preferred term is the one used by the most overtly racist society in the world, South Africa, where it was used for anyone who wasn't white.* It used to be Negro or, as The Governor of Mississippi pronounced it, "Nigrah". Before that,it was Nigger; a term that is still used, without prejudice, within the Black community. Afro-American now seems to be in vogue. Who knows what the fashion will be next year?
A woman who prefers her sex with women may or may not mind being called Gay or a Lesbian. A man who prefers sex with men may accept the term homosexual, but prefers Gay. That word comes hard to me because I have met no gay homosexuals. The few I've known have been alienated and slightly sad. The words Dyke, Lesbo, Queer, Fruit, Strange, Funny, Faggot, Fag, and Homo are definitely out. Many figure that their sexual preferences are nobody's business and don't want to be "lumped" or "put in a box". They don't advertise.
The comedian and social critic Lenny Bruce considered the careful use of correct words to constitute bigotry in and of itself, and believed that "the word's suppression gives it the power, the violence, the viciousness. If President Kennedy got on television and said 'Tonight I'd like to introduce the niggers in my cabinet' and he yelled nigger nigger nigger nigger.....till nigger lost its meaning --you'd never make any four-year-old nigger cry when he came home from school." Robert H. deCoy, one of the more original thinkers in the Black community, apparently agreed with Bruce and wrote The Nigger Bible. Harry Truman, one of the best friends the Black community ever had, used the word nigger as a descriptive term, much to the chagrin of his biographer.
I don't like bigotry. But it is not words that make for bigotry, but attitudes. Some of the most bigoted people I have known always used the correct words.
An affluent white southerner who was raised, fed and cuddled by a black woman, and who played with her black children, can't help but love the color black. The Northern intellectual may have only feelings of alienation for people of color --but he uses the right words. He's polite, but there is often bigotry under that veneer of politeness.
Bigotry is also not restricted to any one group. ALL national, racial and religious groups, WITHOUT EXCEPTION have lots of bigotry: the attitude that members of their own group are, in some way, better or worse than members of another group. The humiliation that minority children are exposed to cuts very deep. And they retaliate with bigotry of their own.
Yes, it's cruel to hurt someone's feelings with words, and sentient people usually don't do it. But there is much more to the whole business than words alone.
I think that Lenny Bruce was headed in the right direction when he campaigned against verbal repression. It was a losing battle. Whether they express them or not, people cling to their hatreds and prejudices as if they were old friends. The only hope for a brotherhood of mankind is that each generation may have a little less prejudice than the one before. That might come to pass if people from different cultures talk to one another and come to realize that their similarities are far greater than their differences.
*9/12/00 This statement is wrong. South Africans referred to native Africans as "black." Other colored people such as those from India were called "colored."
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