WARNING: this blog post has some words that may offend you. None of these words are written in the context of intending offense but if you have such a low tolerance that you cannot see some words in print without having an aneurysm, turn away. Maybe visit T-Shirt Hell or T-Shirt Hell for Kids and desensitize yourself. Then come back.
Last week, at work, we had some very inappropriate conversations. It all stemmed from a risqué new catch phrase the company is thinking of using on the home page. I'm not going to say what it is. If it makes it to production, you'll see it. If not, you won't.
So, when I got to work and saw this phrase, for some reason, I totally missed its WTF factor and glossed over it. Then one of my co-workers looked at me and said, "OMB, is that really going to say this!?" (OMB: Oh, My Blog!)
I was suddenly aware that I had missed this and also came down with a case of mild shock and a serious need to jab some humor, lest this go without ridicule.
This is when all of the developers, designers and everyone else who is not related to marketing came over and expressed their OMBs and WTFs. As one developer so aptly put it, "Oh, shit! LOL!"
Hearing the scoffs of nearly the entire staff during the morning meeting, our marketing expert decided to show us a slide show, depicting our structure for talking about the company both internally and externally. This was to show us how they come up with the language they use.
And this is when we had our HR nightmare moment.
We all followed along with the presentation, slowly coming to terms with the vision for how we present ourselves to the public, when suddenly a slide bore the phrase, "don't be retarded."
Now everyone chimes in a note.
"Um.... that's not ok..."
"I actually find that offensive. This is a personal matter to me. That's not cool."
"This is just internal." Says the head of marketing.
"No, really, that's not OK, even internally."
"Yeah, that's like saying, don't be a Jew", says the resident Jewish guy.
"Yeah, or don't be a nigger...." says another. Then this person turns to the one dark skinned person we have in our company. "And I mean that purely as a bad taste example. This is totally inappropriate." Then he looks embarrassed.
After the presentation, a few of us gather together and have a pretty nice discussion on slang bigotry and its adoption into mainstream media--and what is becoming accepted and what will never be acceptable. This conversation had everything, awkward pauses, honest humor, insightful realizations, and a conclusive visit to T-Shirt Hell. Among other conclusions, we found that just about any name can be derogatory and sometimes it just depends on who is speaking and how the name is presented. Context is key, but some words immediately strike bad chords with people, no matter what.
At some point in the conversation, the common misconception that some derogatory words are being 'taken back' by the oppressed came up. Although I had not thought too much on this before, I realized that this concept is complete bullshit. At least in practice. I think it's a good theoretical plan, but it fails in reality. Why, you ask?
You can't fight bigotry using mass media when bigots own mass media. I am referring, of course, to television, music and movies, where propagation of bigotry is most effective and does the most damage in shaping pop-culture and defining acceptable linguistic patterns.
The characters in the media who use derogatory words on themselves in a joking or playful manner are nearly always represented as undereducated or otherwise satirical characters. You are supposed to laugh at these people and think poorly of them. This ends up making the concept of reclaiming these words into a joke. You never hear intellectuals in the media using derogatory words in this way.
If James Earl Jones started referring to his children as "his niggers", people would freak out. But Puff Daddy can sing about it because he's from the hood and people from the hood are supposed to be undereducated and bad-to-the-bone, anti-PC and righteous about it. Now, Puff Daddy might be a brilliant mo-fo. He might be an intellectual genius. But he doesn't sell intellectual genius. The character he sells is the stereotype. This pattern continues for sexual preference, any skin color, religious leaning, gender or any other of the countless ways people are different.
Now, we get into dark realms when we start talking about what 'They' (referring to any group of people) prefer to be called. Some groups prefer one thing, others something else. The simple fact is that language is deciphered internally by the individual. Your reaction to the language people use depends on your personal experiences. These days, people from all walks of life can grow up within all other walks of life. Just because you fit a physical stereotype doesn't mean that you even relate to it the same way someone else with the same (or a similar) physical does.
Some people profess that you shouldn't refer to "Native Americans" as "Indians" because it's offensive. But really, Native American is just as offensive to some. Obviously, the original inhabitants of this continent never considered themselves Indian, because, hey, look at a map. But this continent isn't America to some of them either. Through the ages, people have made up countless names (Red Indians, American Indians, the American Indian race, Original Americans, First Nations, Indigenous Peoples of America, Amerindians, Amerinds) but it's all just more inaccurate and bigoted labeling (read more about the controversy on Wikipedia). An Apache or Sioux is an Apache or Sioux. But since people are so fond of generalized labels (mostly because very specific labels are cumbersome to acquire and to say), these names rarely come up.
And what am I?
I like to think of myself as a Pangaean American. My ancestors go all the way back.
OK, this is getting long winded and digressing into too many tangents. Let me just end by saying this:
I'm all for people reclaiming insults with humor and gusto. I hope it will work someday. But as long as Hollywood can pay Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker to make racial slurs at one-another, it's all still an insult and nobody is going to take a verbal reclamation seriously. If we really want to change how people view these words, we need to start by teaching our children that the media can't be trusted for acquiring communication skills. Then we need to change the media.