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Paula Deen, Language, Culture, and Hearts

July 3, 2013

Every time there is a newsworthy event regarding the use of language,  I have  flashbacks to the days when I taught Communication Studies classes at UNC-Greensboro.  It was an interesting environment, as most college campuses are, but with slightly higher concentrations of gays, African Americans, and women, it was a little more culturally weighted toward the historically “under served.”  The straight, white, Christian male was a minority in my classes, and even among those, there were a number of nerds, geeks, and non-athletes who knew what it was like to suffer at the hands of others who felt (or wanted to feel) superior.

 That’s why I enjoyed teaching about how culture shapes language.  As a member of some minority, most everyone in my classes had a story to share about being hurt by thoughtless people who failed to consider how damaging their words could be.  Despite the fact that we’ve all tried to believe little rhyme: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me,”  we know that words can hurt, hurt so much that they can damage a person’s psyche forever.  How many of you still cringe from the memory of an offhand remark made by someone from your childhood?   

Theoretically words SHOULD never hurt us, unless they send us to prison or the gallows.  After all,  language is a contrivance of humankind—entirely artificial and fluid.  Words that have a given meaning in one era,  language, country, state, community, or family have entirely different meanings in other languages, countries, states, communities, and families. How many times have you been surprised that someone was offended or irritated by something you said when you had absolutely no intention to be offensive or irritating?   

Even though I know this, taught it in the classroom for years, there still are certain words that make me cringe.  Swear words using God’s name offend me so much that I can’t even read the ubiquitous “omg,” or worse, “omfg” without wishing people would learn a few manners.  As an East Tennessean, I don’t like it when people imply that those of us who grew up in rural Appalachia are ignorant and ornery.  People recoil when they hear a nice little old lady use the “f” word, and the “c” word is forbidden in “polite company,” although both sure abound in music these days.   Why do people take offense at words? The only meanings words have are the meanings each of us, individually, assign to them.  “Fat” means something entirely different to my ultra skinny friend than it does to someone just this side of obese.  You can think of a thousand words that we Americans use in different contexts and which have different meanings, and none of us see any problem with that.  If we are offended by any of those words, if they are spoken from an inoffensive perspective, the problem is ours, not the person who uttered them.  The real meaning lies not in what is said, but the intent behind the words.  My sister would sometimes call me a bitch, as in, “You bitch.  I tried that dress on and it made me look like a stump.”  When she did, I would laugh and preen, because I knew she loved me deeply and that what she really meant was she thought I was beautiful. 

But some words have been singled out as offensive to society in general, and that puts them in a different category altogether.  No longer are some words just “words,” but  icons for something much more important to the psyche of our culture.  There aren’t very many.  The only really big one today is the “n” word (with the “c” word and maybe the “r” word close seconds, but only in some circles).  This word is considered so taboo that if any white person utters it, no matter what the context or the feeling behind it, that person is, according to our hyper-sensitive culture, a pariah deserving of being stripped of all honor,  financial assets, and social standing.  People have been ranting for weeks about Paula Deen, an “elderly,” (forgive me, Paula, that probably is offensive to you, but “elderly” is one of those words with fluid meaning.  I think 66 is getting up there, but you may think you’ve just hit your “prime.”) southern, not terribly educated about cultures (will I get into trouble here? She graduated from high school, but most likely did not have the advantage of college classes promoting cultural sensitivity) who admitted that some years ago she used the forbidden word.  She didn’t kill anybody.  She didn’t even threaten anybody.  At the time she uttered it, it was considered an impolite word among white people, and she probably had no clue of how it affected Black people. Really, her biggest crime was that she was unaware that one day in the future, American society would find the word beyond abhorrent. 

She has her supporters, people who don’t understand that we’re not dealing with just current issues here.  Many bring up the double standard African Americans apparently have regarding racial slurs.  And they do have their point, but to belabor it obscures the fact that the issue is much more complex.  We need to stop looking at the surface of the name-calling and go deeper into the cultural history which has made this such a sensitive issue. 

The truth is that for about 200 years slavery in its most shameful form was an accepted practice in the United States.  The overwhelming majority of slaves were of African descent.  After the Civil War, people of color were still regarded by some as inferior for at least the next hundred years.  Certainly many people of Paula Deen’s generation and of her culture harbored, however deep and secretively, feelings of racial superiority.  No matter what terms anyone used to describe Black people,  the feelings of racism were always there, lurking under the surface.  It’s hard to get over the things you were taught from an early age.  Northern or Southern, rich or poor, educated or ignorant, you were fortunate if you were never “programmed” to believe that white people are superior to dark ones.  You were also fortunate if you eventually learned that any kind of elitism ultimately rots the soul and destroys the fabric of the larger society. If someone taught you about the moral decay of  Germany in the 30s and 40s, and how American elitism which relegated the Jew to substandard standing contributed to that moral decay, you had an advantage far beyond most people of the times.  And if someone taught you that Jesus loves everyone equally and that He requires that we do, too, you have the advantage of  untrammeled friendships with people of many racial backgrounds.   

The upshot of racist and elitist thinking is that it makes us harbor unkindness in our hearts, and that no matter how we refer to anybody, if that unkindness and lack of grace is there, the words we use are going to come out as hateful.  The words used by the most hateful people are the ones that are eventually going to have the most painful and offensive feelings associated with them.  The “n” word has come to us as an icon. It was used as the primary descriptive term by people who wanted to justify murder and oppression by robbing the people to whom it referred of their humanity.  And so it became the symbol of something rotten and ugly and mean.  

As white people, we need to understand that it isn’t the word, it’s the history behind the word, and if we think African Americans unjustly “get by” with using racial slurs to refer to white people while we don’t have the same privilege, we don’t fully understand the history of pain that Africans suffered at the hands of white people.  Never mind that your ancestors never owned slaves or that you have been racially tolerant your whole life.  The fact is that one culture abused another culture and the abused culture is still reeling from the effects of it.  We need to get over it if they still want to vent a little. 

To my Black friends, and all of us who are sensitive to certain terms may I add this:  Words really are artificial contrivances, meaningless without intent behind them.  If I call someone a term which seems offensive to you, the meaning can vary so significantly that you really don’t know what I mean unless you know me and what is in my heart.  It’s justifiable to be sensitive to the use of the “n” word because we are still living with the residue of the culture of racism in America, and we see it as a symbol of that culture.  But please, let’s all try to look beyond the words and understand what someone really means, what kind of background he or she came from to cause him to be so culturally blind, what kind of hurts he or she is carrying around before we jump to retaliate for a slip of the tongue. 

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