Apr 17, 201407:40 AMAfter Hours
with Jody Glynn Patrick
Is my language racist? Is yours?
(page 1 of 2)
Many among my Madison-area friends have asked how the transition to living in a small town has gone for Kevin and I since our semi-retirement move to central Illinois. I always answer enthusiastically about our new home and the assortment of wild birds living in our gardens, and I’ve waxed poetic about the pleasures of being near my childhood family. What I don’t glorify is the constant use of the word “colored” here in the Bible Belt, and how that sets my teeth on edge. I’ve lived in large cities (Chicago, Denver, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, and Madison) almost my entire adult life, and I mistakenly thought that word was eradicated about the time the Vietnam War ended. Not so.
The folks I’ve met seem to be well meaning, intelligent, hardworking folks, like most in rural township areas who live around agricultural or manufacturing centers. I can’t imagine they harbor a hidden malice toward “coloreds.” However, there does seem to be a clear delineation between “them” and “us” because the word is casually used as a descriptor for anyone of African-American descent.
My grandson Patrick, 12, recently stayed a few days for a visit from Chicago, and during a family lunch conversation, after listening to my uncle’s tales of military experiences during the Vietnam War — many of which featured “colored” people — Patrick asked my elderly uncle if he was a man who believed in segregation. “Yes,” answered my uncle, which even took me aback, until he added, “I don’t have any problem living next door to them or working with them. They are people, just like you and me. I was proud to serve alongside them in the military, Patrick.”
I saw Patrick’s eyes squint, a tiny frown forming on his face, and I quickly caught his attention and shook my head slightly, signaling him to let it go — we’d talk about it later. And so later that day, I explained to Patrick that his great uncle didn’t live in the states during segregation, nor did he study it, and he isn’t familiar with the meaning of the word. However, he’s always lived in an integrated world and he doesn’t mean the word “colored” to be anything but a descriptor, since he enjoys painting a picture with words and being sure you can imagine the scenes he is describing. “His choice of words is unfortunate, but he means what you’d mean if you described a friend as being ‘black’,” I added.
“But I wouldn’t do that,” Patrick said pointedly, “unless you asked me to describe the friend. I don’t tell you that my white friend Max has black hair or that Sarah has blond hair and is short. I just talk about Max and Sarah. Adults are the only people who talk about skin color, and they only do it when somebody has a different skin color than they do. Grownups do it all the time. It isn’t descriptive, it’s racist. It’s pointing out a difference when the only description mentioned is skin color.”
Wow. Patrick’s comments caused me to rethink my own conversations. Do I describe someone as “Hispanic” or “black” when talking to a third party about an interaction with them? And do black people point out if someone is white in their conversations with other black people? But Patrick’s right — I wouldn’t describe Phyllis as tall or blond, which she is, nor would I say Tom has dark hair. Instead, I’d say how accomplished Phyllis is, how intelligent. I’d probably mention how Tom leans politically to the left in a refreshing manner, and add that he’s an interesting person to me. Both are white like me. Would I preface those same remarks, if talking about Jorge, with the comment that he’s Hispanic?