Lesser known racial faux pas
August 27, 2020 8:46 AM   Subscribe

I am not asking any BIPOC to do labor for me but if you are not BIPOC and are father along than I am in this important work, please share with me resources to help me understand problematic phrases and assumptions that are lesser known offenders.

As it says, I am looking for sources of information about less commonly known racially biased or problematic language/idioms/etc.

For example, I had no idea until the last month that the word picnic is racist. I'm not sure where I could have learned that if I hadn't been involved in anti racist groups with BIPOC willing to share that information. What else is like that?
posted by crunchy potato to Society & Culture (23 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
That picnic thing is false. There were picnics that coincided with lynchings, but that's not the origin of the term or of the activity.

I feel like maybe this request is a bit broad for MeFi. It's sort along the lines of "tell me what not to say," and the principle of doing your own work is important here. I think if you just follow along the discussions you are currently following, and learn as you go - being sure to verify for yourself anything that sounds surprising - and be open to constant learning and change, it's about the best you can do.

Others may well disagree. That's my take.
posted by Miko at 8:57 AM on August 27, 2020 [26 favorites]

You might find this resource useful: problematic words. The site is from a British consultancy working on decolonising the curriculum.
posted by plonkee at 9:04 AM on August 27, 2020 [4 favorites]

IMO an important part of our anti-racism work has to be doing due diligence when we're told X is racist rather than just take it on faith and start spreading it around that X is indeed racist. Consider that there have been several deliberate misinformation campaigns by bad faith actors along these very lines, intended to rile up unsuspecting people into feeling like "these SJWs are going too far" and making even sympathetic folks more likely to stop actively supporting anti-racism efforts by painting us as frivolous and generally idiotic.

I personally try to get confirmation from several different sources when the latest "X is racist" has popped up on Twitter. Even when I do find a few independent sources of confirmation but there doesn't seem to be a compelling justification, I tend to mentally sort it into the pile of "flash in the pan trends which don't mean much" ... I hang back and don't jump on the bandwagon - i.e. I would neither use X nor tell others that X is racist.
posted by MiraK at 9:06 AM on August 27, 2020 [36 favorites]

I feel like maybe this request is a bit broad for MeFi. It's sort along the lines of "tell me what not to say," and the principle of doing your own work is important here. I think if you just follow along the discussions you are currently following, and learn as you go - being sure to verify for yourself anything that sounds surprising - and be open to constant learning and change, it's about the best you can do.

This is a fair point; I would only counter with the observation that for a person who wants to learn, one of the biggest obstacles might be not knowing what questions they even have to ask, or what work they even need to do. I was taking this question in this spirit, at least. (And speaking as someone who has on more than one occasion innocently said something that I had utterly no idea had an alternate connotation - fortunately with more amusing results - I can sympathize.)

CNN did a piece on this back in June.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:07 AM on August 27, 2020 [8 favorites]

One thing you have to keep in mind is that not everyone has the same sore points. Things that some people consider hurtful, other people have no problem with. My store had sock monkeys as a sort of mascot for a number of years. But we came to realize that, despite there being no historical connection we could find, the red-heel mouth was too close to a racialized caricature for some people, and the fact that Black people have been called by the animal name was too much for other people. So we eliminated it from our branding. It doesn't matter if something makes sense to you, what matters is trying not to be hurtful.

A lot of this is necessarily reactive. Because individuals are individuals and each has their own reactions, there's no universal agreement on what's offensive. That means that learning how to be graceful when you offend is at least as important as learning what not to say.
posted by rikschell at 9:07 AM on August 27, 2020 [9 favorites]

I found the thread here "Racial Slurs that Should Never be Written" instructive, both in terms of slurs I hadn't really thought about and also the occasional diversity of opinion among the groups the slurs refer to (which I don't want to overstate, since it's usually not "the big ones" that are in question, but is interesting in more edge cases. There were one or two that refer to groups I'm part of where I thought "meh" but also "well, useful to know that other people are offended by that.")
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 9:12 AM on August 27, 2020 [1 favorite]

Noelle Stevenson, showrunner of the She-Ra reboot took a lot of heat on Twitter yesterday for an offhand comment about a Black character's brothers, one of whom "liked to till the fields." People came down on her hard for "making a slavery joke." Noelle could have gotten defensive about how Black slavery did not exist in her fantasy universe, or about the existence of Black farmers in the world, but they didn't. They made a well-thought-through apology:
Hey everyone, I made a very careless statement in today's stream that hurt a lot of Black fans and fans of color. The implications did not occur to me and that lapse in judgment is fully, 100% on me. I apologize wholeheartedly and I'm sorry for the hurt caused and trust lost.

I take the responsibility of creating a safe and positive space for fans very seriously, and I've failed in that today. Thank you for making your voices heard. I will be rededicating myself to examining my language and behavior so that this failure will never be repeated.

And for white and nonblack fans, please remember that I do not need defending and do not harass or add emotional labor to those hurt by this. I accept the consequences and will be taking serious action to make this right in any way I can.
posted by rikschell at 9:26 AM on August 27, 2020 [16 favorites]

One that I just ran into from a coworker is “nobody here but us chickens.” It’s a punchline from an unambiguously racist joke, but it’s flattened out into a cliche that I think people mostly don’t know the origins of — the woman who said it had no idea at all.

About twenty years ago I did a similar thing — said “cottonpickin’ hands”, which I think I must have gotten from a Bugs Bunny cartoon and hadn’t thought about. Got some very minimal side-eye from a Black coworker, and I didn’t figure out what the problem was until I thought about it an hour or so later back in my office.

Generally, I’d be careful with ‘folksy’ ‘colorful’ language unless you know exactly what the origins and implications are.
posted by LizardBreath at 9:28 AM on August 27, 2020 [9 favorites]

Response by poster: I should clarify my phrasing from the OP. I am aware the word picnic is not, in itself, racial in origin. But it is still offensive for some, because of the way it has been used, and I had no idea of the American history of distortion of that word until it was pointed out that having a "Juneteenth picnic" was problematic.
posted by crunchy potato at 9:32 AM on August 27, 2020 [1 favorite]

As a white guy, I recently realized that I commented on a Black colleague's presentation as "well said," in the context of a diversity and inclusion talk. I'm pretty sure I would have said the same thing to a white person. . . but, in context, it was a very poor choice. Staying as far as possible from telling people they're "articulate" is high on my list of things to watch out for and avoid.
posted by eotvos at 9:35 AM on August 27, 2020 [9 favorites]

Been thinking about this since those Instagram memes went around like "peanut gallery is segregationist! Romani people are not thieves! The ice cream truck jingle Turkey in the Straw is a minstrel song!"

Rather than try to compile a list of expressions / songs / elements of American culture tangled up with the history of white supremacy (nearly... all of them), I suggest practicing "I apologize! I didn't know!" without making too big a deal out of it. As Maya Angelou said, "do your best until you know better. When you know better, do better."

If you're looking to fast-track your knowing better, though, I'd start with robust history over idiomatic etymology. For example: A People's History of the United States.

I am white though so YMMV. But also being a professor has taught me that nobody knows all these histories, not even the critical race studies professors :)
posted by athirstforsalt at 9:37 AM on August 27, 2020 [15 favorites]

You probably already know this, but: Generations of children were raised on Loony Toons cartoons, and there are a ton of racist sayings, idioms, and coded language in those. Many of us, myself included, learned funny phrases and things from Loony Toons that made it into our language unexamined, as children. If you re-watch those I think you'll spot it as you go, if you're a reasonably alert person.
posted by juniperesque at 9:47 AM on August 27, 2020 [16 favorites]

I doubt I'm any further that yourself, but as all paths are different, there's maybe something to contribute: plenty of places have local expressions meaning "do you think I've come from afar?" and hence "do you think I'm foolish/naive?". Our local version is "do you think I came up the Clyde in a banana boat?", and that particular phrasing does not sit well with many POC for good reason. What LizardBreath said on colourful language. I guess, if you're living in a more diverse society than you grew up in, some expressions you grew up with (and probably have no associations about) just aren't going to cut it, and it's a trick I'm still learning to handle that gracefully.
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 10:04 AM on August 27, 2020 [2 favorites]

Best answer: white woman here. Don't use the words in the problematic words list. Don't coopt or appropriate Black Culture. I would put the most effort into listening to Black people to inform yourself at the source. Read Black media, blogs, more, more, more, more, more, more, more. Read Black literature of all sorts. If you have not read Ta-Nehisi Coates' Atlantic article The Case for Reparations, go read it now. I think it's incredibly important that it be Black voices that teach us. The context is critical.
posted by theora55 at 10:15 AM on August 27, 2020 [23 favorites]

This channel (that I used to watch for info about Disneyworld of all things) has started up small video series about the history of racism & how American Normalised Racism. They're not super long videos & as a foreigner that moved to the US, I have found them very informative. Not only does it cover word use to some extent, it covers other areas you might not have even thought of. The origin of the dunk tank video had me, well still has me, completely horrified.
posted by wwax at 10:33 AM on August 27, 2020 [4 favorites]

Yeah, part of it comes down to a particular person; a trans co-worker was taunting me because his shift was over and I was just started, and I told him to quit being a dick...

...and immediately gasped what I'd said. As I began to apologize, he laughed. "No, man, we're cool. I was *totally* being a dick!"
posted by notsnot at 11:22 AM on August 27, 2020 [4 favorites]

[...]I had no idea of the American history of distortion of that word until it was pointed out that having a "Juneteenth picnic" was problematic.
Picnics are probably the single most common and traditional way to celebrate Juneteenth. Actually, according to this NYT piece, some black families literally just call it "the picnic."
posted by kickingtheground at 11:42 AM on August 27, 2020 [13 favorites]

Something I recently came across: the idea of reserving nb/NB to mean "non-Black" (as in NBPOC) rather than "non-binary".
posted by teremala at 12:26 PM on August 27, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: This is not just for issues about racially insensitive language but as someone who writes for a living I have found regularly reading The Conscious Style Guide (their section on ethnicity, race and nationality) helps me make sure the words i am using are in line with progressive ideas and also gives me places to find out more. They regularly link to good writing by various authors, mostly POC, trying to help people understand how language is evolving and how to not make a bunch of easily-avoidable mistakes. And when there is true divergence of thought on a topic within the communities described by it, they can link to articles that describe those issues from people within the communities, not randos opining about how they think people should feel. I find it helpful.
posted by jessamyn at 1:08 PM on August 27, 2020 [28 favorites]

One that I just ran into from a coworker is “nobody here but us chickens.” It’s a punchline from an unambiguously racist joke

it's a good example. I grew up with that saying, and the joke it is part of, but the joke as I heard it in my family was non-racially-related in any way.

There's a part of these discussions that isn't about the words themselves - but about revealing the pervasiveness of radicalized thinking in culture. Discussing and investigating that thinking and the harms it's done is the point of raising up the idioms - not creating a banned list of words, though some deserve the banning. I agree that such discussions can quickly become a caricature of do-gooderism without leading to deep investigation and repudiation of the racial histories themselves.
posted by Miko at 2:06 PM on August 27, 2020 [4 favorites]

I would add to this list knowing which kids' songs are minstrel songs. I don't have a good list offhand, but it includes a bunch of songs from my childhood.

In edit: wikipedia does have a list.
posted by lab.beetle at 5:33 PM on August 27, 2020 [4 favorites]

Start sensitizing yourself to how you learn, approach, and acknowledge people's names. I think names are the shoals that well-meaning white liberals unknowingly wash up on to reveal how much they have to unlearn.

I am a white woman with a highly unusual name and I often get compliments for it ("Is it.... Celtic?!") that unintentionally reveals a lot of implicit bias. I am a white woman rewarded for having a non-standard name whereas BIPOC with non-standard names often do not receive the same kind of compliments. Once I started noticing it, I could not un-notice it. Frankly I find people complimenting my name a little creepy, because I didn't pick it, my parents did.

It seems like a lot of people use unusual names' as a shortcut to ask "where are you from?" but they can do it under the guise of "Oh, what language is your name from?" This is a conversation that I don't mind having with someone who's been my acquaintance or friend for some time and we've already established some kind of rapport or intimacy. But it's tiresome to explain it to someone I literally just met. I don't owe my family backstory to a stranger right off the bat.

Practice humility when learning people's names. I struggle with this too, and I also sometimes find myself still a bit unsure of someone's name after interacting with them a couple times My usual tactic when I am not confident that I am pronouncing their name correctly is to say something like, "I want to make sure I'm getting your name right because it's really important. I have been saying (whatever I think it is) in my head, but I am not sure if this is right. Can you help me again by telling me how to pronounce your name?" And then you need to go write it down on an index card or your Evernote file or whatever so you can practice it. I can't speak for everyone with an unusual name, but I would much rather have people own up to not being sure of how to say my name a few more times than to continue to say it incorrectly, because I hate having to interrupt people to tell them how to stop mispronouncing my name but I will do it anyway and then we'll both feel weird about it.

Finally: if you're stumbling on someone's name, or about to try to say it, never, ever, under any circumstances say "I'm going to butcher this name." It is horrifying what a common phrase this is and how little people think about it. Do not bring images of violence or gutting or extraction into the simple act of attempting to pronounce someone's name. Period.
posted by mostly vowels at 5:36 AM on August 28, 2020 [10 favorites]

I would add that lots of folks say “I’m going to butcher/mess up/mispronounce this name” and then proceed as though making that statement absolves them of needing to make any real effort going forward.
posted by ocherdraco at 8:09 AM on September 1, 2020 [2 favorites]

« Older Adust slow-roasted picnic shoulder recipe for...   |   Can you recommend a biography about overcoming... Newer »

You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments