Monday, July 1, 2013

White People: You Know Damn Well Why

I am so tired of the faux, feigned, wide-eyed, or alternately enraged, “If they can say n*gga, then why can’t I?” coming out of the mouths of white people.
You know why.
You explain this to your kids (or I hope you do) all the time. Your five-year old says a bad word and defends himself by saying that someone else said it.
You tell him he’s not someone else, you don’t care what someone else does, he is him and he will not do it.

So, I’ll put it in terms you can understand: You’re not black people. You don’t get to say it.
And I’ll advise: Deal with it. Grow up.

You abide these restrictions all the time, in your daily life, and you expect them to be observed by those around you as well.
You can call yourself fat. I can’t.
You can call yourself stupid. I can’t.
You can call yourself ugly. I can’t.

You see, what we can say about ourselves is different from what others can say about us.

It has to do with our membership in a group, our part in a relationship.
My friend Shelly can call me “dude” when she’s irritated with me. You can’t. You’re not Shelly.
Relatives on the Adams side of my family can call me “Crane.” You can’t. You don’t know that story.

I can address my girlfriends as “biyatches” if I want to. But you can’t. Not unless you know them too, and we like you, and mutually agree to not take offense.
One of my best friends is Jewish. She can refer to herself disparagingly as a “Yid,” (a now out-of-fashion slur for Jews), but I can’t. I’m not Jewish. My Jewish friends can tell Jewish jokes too, but I can’t. I’m not Jewish.

My lesbian friend can call herself a “dyke” if she wants to. I can’t. I can only ever say “lesbian.” Same with my male homosexual friends. I can call them “gay.” I can’t call them “fag,” even though they call themselves that. 
Italian people can call each other “wop.” I’m not Italian, so I don’t get to say that word.
Mexicans can call each other “spic” or “beaner” if they want to. I can’t. I’m not Mexican.
There are some Irish in my family, and they can use the word “mick.” I can’t. I’m not the least bit Irish.

I live with these restrictions on my speech just fine. I make myself understood, I show my affection, or disaffection, as it may be, without resorting to ethnic or racial or sexual slurs. And I manage pretty well on a daily basis, so I know you can too.

You know what I can do? I can call people Russkies. Or dirty DPs. (Another old-fashioned slur.) You know why? Because I am one. Or descended from one, anyway. We can also sling around “Kraut” in our family, or could if we were so inclined, because there’s lot of German in us. But we don’t.

We all learn these rules about language, as kids. We learn what we can say, around whom, to whom. We learn that there are different levels of speech, that there are things you can say to your friends and things you can say to authority figures. You learn not to say certain things in front of teachers, preachers, librarians, cops. If the adults around you are doing their job, you learn that language isn’t just about words, it’s about power and respect and manners and feelings.

When my Russian-born mother and her siblings were together at family gatherings in the 1970s, when they were in their 30s and 40s and us kids were little, they’d get mad at each other and call each other “durak.”
I didn’t know what that word meant, though I knew it was Russian, and I knew it was powerful. Exactly how powerful, in what way, I wasn’t sure. Maybe that’s why I was fascinated by it.
When my grandmother was angry, she’d sometimes call my mom a “durak.”
Sometimes my mother would say, under her breath, “Durak,” when my Uncle Ben was speaking, and then everybody would laugh. Including Uncle Ben.
Other times, in a different, more heated conversation, Aunt Lucy might yell, “Durak!” at Uncle Ben. (He was always in the shit with them, one way or another.) And Ben would get mad and yell, “I’m a durak?”
“Yes,” Lucy would say, vehemently.
“Ty durak!!”? Ben would say, with a kind of implied “ha!” and then he’d slam his cup on the table, and walk out the door. He’d go to the back yard and smoke a cigarette and mutter darkly.

I was obsessed with the meaning of “durak.” (So much so that it might explain my career path, in fact.)
I kept asking my mom, “What does durak mean?”
She kept refusing to answer, or saying it was nothing, or shrugging. Then one day, exasperated after my years of pestering her about it, she finally said, “It means silly.”
Oh. However old I was when this happened — I don’t remember, exactly. 10? — but I knew that was bullsh*t. Why did she spend so many years refusing to define it if it meant silly? So I pushed a little, but she was firm. Silly.

When I was about 14, my mom and brother and I were having dinner with a Russian Orthodox priest. (Yep, you Russkies know where I’m going with this, don’t you?)
He was telling some kind of funny story and I remembered the one word of Russian I knew. I hesitated for just a moment, knowing I wasn't really convinced it only meant silly, but I also knew this was my chance to find out truly what it meant, to get a reaction. I was aware I had a tiny bit of power in my hands, to use that mysterious word, to wield "durak" instead of only hear others say it. I turned to my mom and said affectionately, “He’s durak.”
My mom’s face registered utter shock.
Uh oh.
I looked at the priest. He was blushing, a deep red coming up out of his chest, up his neck, to his cheeks, and right on up to his forehead.
Uh oh.
I turned back to my mom, protesting my innocence, already trying to apologize, and she smacked me across the face. I mean smacked—open palm, with effort. She’d never done that before. I began to wail, of course, saying “You said it meant silly! What does it mean?” and the priest was now utterly mortified, telling my mom it was okay, don’t worry about it, I didn’t mean it….

And I was so on my mom’s shit list for so long over that that I never dared ask again what durak meant.

Until I got to college. I asked a Russian language professor of mine. (The word wasn’t in our dictionaries.) He said it meant “dummy.”
Okay. Well, it’s not nice to call a priest “dummy” of course, but that still didn’t quite explain what happened that day. So I told him the priest story.
The prof’s mouth dropped open. Then he giggled, with horror. He explained that any slur in Russian is much stronger than its English equivalent. Thinking aloud, he said, “So it’s not dummy, exactly. It’s more like…jackass.”
Oh holy mother of god. I called a priest a jackass. I was mortified all over again, twenty years after the fact.
“Moron, ignoramus, retard,” the prof went on.
I finally got it. The word carried a soupçon of contempt, of derision, of a kind that “silly” or even “dummy” doesn’t begin to capture. I never ever said the word to anyone again, even in Russia, where it might have been called for on occasion. I'd learned a lesson about my responsibility to use words with care, and the kind of thing that might happen if I didn't. (And I don't mean the smack. I mean that poor priest's face.)

It is long past time for white people to learn this lesson. You are not a 14-year-old girl using a Russian word without understanding its meaning. You aren't hurting people by accident. You are rather exonerating yourself before the act, trying to claim that the culture has got you all confused. You know better, but you think you’re being tricky by citing rap lyrics, some guys down at the bodega, and black comedians. You are acting like a five-year-old kid, and I’m not falling for it.

Words have power. They have a denotative meaning (an actual definition) and a connotative meaning (their history; and social/political/racial implications.) You can claim that you are 15 or 20 or 25 or 30 or 40 or 50or 66—and thus never owned a slave—and yeah, so what. I don’t give a flying f*ck about that and no one else does either. The word “n*gger” carries in its very DNA the power of a majority population to enslave and exploit and disenfranchise an entire minority people—thus that word signifies the entire social/cultural/political apparatus that was used to define and degrade people based on the melanin in their skin—and when you use that word, as a white person, you are taking up a position in that power dynamic.

(And that’s why Paula Deen is in so much trouble. Not because she used the “n-word” once, thirty years ago. But because she used it much more than that, much more recently than that. Just five years ago, she waxed poetic over a “plantation wedding” as if those “waiters” weren’t actually enslaved human beings. It’s like looking at a picture of a concentration camp and remarking about the lovely uniforms the SS men are wearing. It means you don’t grasp the human, historical, material reality of suffering people, historical as they may be now. And—not historical!—the black workers in her restaurants were required to use segregated bathrooms and entry/exit doors. Read some of the transcript, and you’ll understand why many companies no longer want to be associated with her.)

Anyway, the fact is: you know WHY you can’t use this word. So don’t give me this bullshit about “not understanding” why you can’t say it cuz Snoop Dogg does. You are not Snoop Dogg.

Just stop. Grow up. Show some respect. Take responsibility for making the world a better place, not coming up with “reasons” that you should be allowed to contribute to its ugliness.

Monday, February 25, 2013

The Manny Journals, continued.
(If this is new to you, please scroll down to the bottom of the page and start with chapter 1. Where I also explain what The Manny Journals are and why I'm posting these chapters!)

Chapter 5: First Contact
The phone rings five times before Sydney answers.
“Blake?” She sets down the phone and groans. “It’s six in the morning!”
“Yeah, sorry, I don’t set United’s schedule,” I mutter. I’m not exactly happy to be awake at six in the morning either, but United’s cheapest flight to D.C. departs at 6:30. Despite the early hour, the flight proves popular. Over a hundred other passengers share the waiting area with me, most of them also lost in their own worlds of Internet browsing or cell phone conversations.
Sydney yawns twice more before she’s ready to resume the conversation. “So. What’s up?”
“Me. Pretty soon at least.”
“Yeah, cute. Seriously. It’s not like you to call so early in the morning just for the hell of it.”
Have to love Sydney—always to the point. “Can’t a guy just call his best friend to chat?” I ask, feigning offense.
“The only time you ever call is when you’re in deep shit or upset about something. If you just wanted to chat, we’d be sitting at Starbucks.” Sydney’s tone is sharp but not unkind.
“TouchĂ©.” Sydney has an uncanny ability to call me on my BS. “I guess it’s just that I’m sitting here, leaving home, and it feels totally surreal. Yesterday it was like it’s all going to be an adventure. Now the reality’s starting to really set in.”
“That’s normal, I think. If it helps, pretty much everyone’s probably feeling the same way right about now, or will be soon at least. Everyone’s going their own way now, doing different things.” By everyone, Sydney means our other graduating classmates.
“Yeah, that’s true. But most people aren’t moving across the country to take a job they never imagined working six months ago.”
“You’d be surprised,” Sydney says. She pauses, but then quickly adds, “But I get what you’re saying.”
“Thanks.” It’s nice that somebody understands.
“Still, it’s something you’re excited about, isn’t it?”
“Sure, I’m excited about it. Though I also have to admit that I’m a bit nervous. I don’t completely know what to expect.” Truth be told, I’m more than a little nervous. I never told Sydney about how Mrs. Jensen ambushed me at her party, though, so I don’t want to show how anxious I’m really feeling. If I let that slip, Sydney would be sure to find a way to pull the whole story out of me.
A moment of silence lingers between us before Sydney fills it. “Does anyone ever completely know what to expect with a new job? You’ll pull through. You know I respect what you’re doing, but in the end, keeping a few kids out of trouble can’t be that hard, can it?”
I snicker. “I guess you’re right. I just need to relax and have some fun with this.”
“Exactly! That’s the spirit.” A vision of Sydney as my life coach fills my mind. Banishing the image, I decide to wrap up the conversation. Sydney is right. It seems like every time I call her I either need something or I’m being needy.
“Listen, I gotta go. They’re starting to board. I promise I’ll call sometime soon. And it’ll just be to talk!”
Sydney laughs. I’ve always loved that laugh. For some reason, the sound of her laughter reminds me of a fairy tale’s happily-ever-after ending. “Okay,” she says. “I’ll hold you to that. You take care. And don’t forget to smile.”
“Thanks, I will. Bye.”
The plane isn’t really boarding, but it will be in a few minutes. Within a half hour, I’ll be on the way to the nation’s capital to start my new life.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Manny Journals, continued. 

(If this is new to you, please scroll down to the bottom of the page and start with chapter 1. Where I also explain what The Manny Journals are and why I'm posting these chapters!) For those of you following along:  I'm finally pretty well settled in my new house, and back to working. (Yay!) Two more (old) chapters to edit, then I will decide if I'm going to keep writing new chapters. I'd love to hear what you think, if anybody out there is following along!
Chapter 4: Just a Few Friends
I glance at the clock: 9:51 pm. It’s been six hours, and I’m still working on this god-forsaken PowerPoint presentation. The afternoon has been one of interruptions.
First, my mom calls me to ask about graduation tickets. I only reluctantly agree to send her the seven tickets she requests. Second, right before dinner, my roommate stumbles into the room, bleeding all over the place. (He fell off his bike. I helped him clean his cuts in hard-to-reach places.) Third, my sister texts me to demand that I call her—why she just didn’t call me, I’ll never know—because Mom and Dad are upset about how terribly I’ve been treating them. It turns out that they expect me to crawl home and grovel for their forgiveness, which they’ll only then reluctantly grant.
I’m in far from the best of moods when my cell phone begins playing the opening bars of “Viva La Vida”—the ringtone for people not in my contacts. I almost don’t answer, but then I notice the number. A 650 area code; that’s Palo Alto.
I flip open the phone. “Hello, this is Blake,” I answer, trying to sound chipper.
“Blake! It’s Leslie Jensen. I’m so sorry to be calling this late, but I just got home—”
She just got home? It’s almost 10:00 on a school night.
“And I realized that it’s already Wednesday. I have no idea where the week’s gone.” She places a hand over the phone, and hollers something about finishing homework. Hopefully, she’s talking to Addison.
“Sorry about that. Anyway, I know it is late notice, but I was wondering if you were free this Friday. We’re having a little get-together. It’d be a wonderful chance for you to meet everyone.”
My weekend plans consist of studying for tests and finishing heretofore procrastinated-on projects, but that might have to change.  My employment contract, signed and sealed, still hasn’t been sent. It’s not that I’ve been avoiding the issue. I just haven’t gotten around to it. I suppose I can look at this dinner as a final interview, one last chance to make sure I’m doing the right thing. Besides, waiting one more day to tackle the work I should’ve started last month isn’t anything new to me.
I make a decision. “Sure, I’m free.”
“Great. We’re having dinner catered at our house. Just a few of William’s and my closest friends and colleagues. And the kids, of course. I’m not sure when we’ll actually sit down for dinner, but everyone’s coming straight from work. You should be safe getting here by 7:30.”
“Should I wear anything in particular?”
“A couple of guys will probably still be in suits from work, but something casual is fine. A button down shirt and slacks work. A jacket if you want.”
Mrs. Jensen’s hand slips over the phone’s mouthpiece again. This time she yells about not eating after brushing your teeth. Now I suspect that she may indeed be talking to Oliver.
“Sorry. I’m trying to corral the kids. Oliver’s just finishing up his homework.”
“Ah, right. I’m actually doing the same thing,” I say, chuckling weakly.
Mrs. Jensen’s tinkling laughter joins my chuckle. “Well, then I’m sure you can relate! By the way, I’ll hire a taxi to pick you up for dinner. William has some great bottles of wine he’s been saving. Shoot me an e-mail with where to send the cab.”
I’ve never had someone offer to hire a cab to pick me up for a party. If this is what mannying for the rich and powerful will be like, I could get used to it real fast.
I swallow my surprise. “Okay, great.”
“Super.” There’s a slight pause, and then she says, “I’m sorry. Bryce won’t stop calling me. I have to run and tuck him in. See you Friday!”
“All right. Thanks.”
She has to tuck Bryce in? Ten o’clock seems like an awfully late bedtime for a four-year-old. But then, maybe he only does afternoon session at preschool. One of parenting articles I read recently said that toddlers and preschoolers can have awfully odd sleeping patterns. Worse than even teenagers, sometimes.
I set aside the phone and turn back to my PowerPoint presentation. I can’t wait until I’m done with all of the papers and projects and out playing in the park with the Jensen kids. The occasional catered dinner won’t hurt, either.