Saturday, August 10, 2013

Accidental Racism: an exercise in sticking one's foot in it...

Despite my sparkling personality, my impeccable manners and my 100% score on the latest Code Of Conduct training at work, even I find myself sticking my foot firmly into my mouth from time to time.

I am, as much as I hate to admit it, an accidental racist.

I know, hard to believe isn't it.  I'm such a model of appropriate behavior and political correctness that you'd be forgiven for assuming I never say anything that could possibly offend anyone.  But it's true.

I know I use the word gypped all the time, and I suppose anyone who was actually a Gypsy would be mortally offended by the insinuation.  The same with indian giver.  And I even found out the other day that the term peanut gallery has racist origins, referring to when black people had to sit at the back of the theatre.

I know, intellectually, that these are racist comments, but they're so common today that I just say them without thinking.

Bad Kellie!

I guess the question is when does an expression stop being racist and start being just part of our everyday language?  When I don't remember it's origin?  When no one remembers it's origin?  When there's no one left alive who can recall it being used to demean and insult?

The term hooligan, for example, originally referred to a drunk Irishman, or more specifically to a particular family of drunk Irishmen called the Hoolihans, but no one would consider that a racist expression.  Is it because it's further away historically speaking?  Or perhaps because the people it's referring to aren't still being discriminated against?

I suppose it doesn't matter, if someone finds a comment racist then I suppose that should be enough of a reason to not use it.

But I'm hardly the only one to suffer from this particular problem.  Take this song that I remember hearing some of my older relatives singing when I was a kid.

Source
Go home to your mother
you little black bugger
you don't belong to me...

Awful, right?  Of course, when they sang it they were referring to flies that were buzzing around food on the dining table.  If they'd thought about what it was really referring to, they probably would have been mortified.

So what about you guys?  Any cases of accidental racism to share with the class?

57 comments:

  1. The other day I accused someone of being a "Native American giver."

    When I was five we didn't catch a tiger by the toe when we eenie meenie miny moed, we caught a nigger by the toe. Makes your little poem tame huh. Hey, I was five...blame the older kids in my life, and I had no idea what a "nigger" represented.

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    1. Well, as long as you used the term "Native American" I suppose it's okay ;D

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  2. I am the same as JoeH - I caught a "nigger" by the toe, not really knowing what that meant. We'd also have "nigger" piles, where one kid would lie down, and all the rest of us would pile on top. Around Thanksgiving my family would always eat different kinds of nuts; my favorite being the "nigger toe", or brazil nuts. NONE of these times was the word "Nigger" said in a bad way; just how I grew up. Now I would NEVER, EVER say the "N" word.

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    1. It's one of those things I suppose, when you grow up with an expression you just don't realise what it really means.

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  3. Holy crap! I'm totally an accidental racist! I guess I sort of knew the Gypped one... there are a few others we use around my house too that seem sort of bad... but WOW!!! I don't use the N' word - EVER - I hate it, actually.. BUT in our house.. when something's put together badly... It's .... rigged... Eek!

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    1. When you start thinking about it it's amazing how many just sneak into your language, isn't it.

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  4. My Dad was one of the biggest racists who ever lived. He put Archie Bunker to shame. I grew up saying things like "let's jew him down" having no clue what that really meant other than trying to get a good deal on something.

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  5. I think the peanut gallery thing is a stretch to be called racist. Remember Howdy Doodie and the peanut gallery of young children. Googling the term comes up with a couple of explanations which literally are tied to peanuts. Racist-- I think not. We have become just toooo politically correct. For instance, when blacks call whites "crackers", I find it funny. I only recently learned the supposed meaning of it. So what. It's time to get over some things.

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    1. I always liked the song from Avenue Q called "Everyone's A Little Bit Racist". It's hilarious, but totally true.

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  6. Guess I have to Welsh on this one. I'm running late.

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  7. I once called a black co-worker an Oreo because he ate so many of them. I later found out this was a racist expression.

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    1. Ouch! That's not good! It happens sometimes though. I remember a friend raising a his glass in a restaurant once and saying quite loudly "Ching!" meaning he wanted us to clink glasses ... then he looked around and realised it was a Chinese restaurant. Awkward.

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  8. I didn't know that about "peanut gallery." Learn something new every day! I thought at first your post was going to be about the recent incident in Switzerland where a salesperson wouldn't show her an expensive handbag because she assumed a black woman couldn't afford it.

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    1. Oops! "her" refers to Oprah, practically the richest woman in the world of ANY colour! Jeez, am I drunk today?

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    2. I read that one about Oprah, but I believe now the sales person is claiming that she never said any such thing and that Oprah made it up. Hmm, I wonder who's telling the truth.

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  9. When I was in middle school, I read a book called "Escape From Warsaw" and the front cover had a swasticka on it (because the book was set in Nazi Europe). Without ever knowing what that symbol meant, I would just haphazardly draw it whenever the class had free time. Luckily, nobody caught on to what I was doing. It would have been disasterous if they did.

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    1. I imagine that would have been an awkward parent teacher conference!

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  10. I don't think it is racism unless you have a harmful or hateful intent. Many people don't even know where these sayings or words come from, I didn't know about the peanut gallery thing. I think true racism is distinguishable from these every day faux pas. Racism to me means that one has an ideal of inferiority over another person or group and they hate, and mistreat that person or group based on race. I also think that many people without even realizing it sometimes do have many prejudices against other people or groups. Some are well known in society (I don't want to point them out) but sometimes people fall into the trap of just going along with those generalized views of particular groups when you can't generalize an entire group based on particular individuals. I try by best to treat everyone well and to be politically correct.

    http://diaryofatrendaholic.blogspot.ca/

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    1. No doubt you're right, there's a big difference between having prejudices and using expressions that happen to have a history.

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  11. Oh gosh...I grew up with so many of those expressions...."catch a nigger by the toe", "nigger toes" for Brazil nuts, 'wops', "jewing someone down", "in a coons age"...just so many of them and lately I've been catching myself so that I don't use them.

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    1. Wow...now those words take it to another level...those phrases are RACIST

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    2. And yet never used to that purpose....just another expression that becomes part of your vocabulary...no thought put into it until one day you "hear" yourself and go ghastly white.

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    3. That's the thing isn't it, it's so easy to have them as part of your normal vocab without even thinking about what they really mean.

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  12. I'm still working on not using gypped. I've gotten to the point where I catch myself about a 1/4 of a second after I say it. Need to shave about a 1/2 second off of that.

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    1. I still use that one sometime without thinking. I apologise to any gypsies out there.

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  13. I have complete faith in you that you are NOT a racist by accident or otherwise. Some of those phrases have become so diluted by use and are now no more than slang i.e. gypped.

    I would not use words such as "jew" or "Indian giver"...those do seem offensive but then I am neither Jewish or Indian so how do I know what might offend either group?

    I have never use the N word and think it is an ugly word. I don't appreciate that it seems to be acceptable in modern rap etc. Ugly words are ugly words.

    As some of the other commenters noted...times have changed our sensibilities. Some of the words that depicted ethnic groups were standard fare. I am glad that a lot of that has changed, although I am sure there is still a lot of room for improvement.

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  14. I thought it was spelled jipped, and since I didn't know any jips I thought we were good!

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  15. I had no idea about "gypped." I'm from the south and had a very proper, upper class, Southern Belle grandmother who thought she was progressive because she didn't quit teaching when they integrated the school in her town, unlike most of the other teachers. That is pretty awesome for the mayor's wife of a small Mississippi town in the 1960's, right? She thought she was awesome because she wouldn't hire anyone other than a "colored" woman to clean her house. I was an adult (I am serious) before I knew white ladies were maids, too. I don't know if that counts as accidental racism or just being dumber than a barrel of hair.

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    1. LOL! I'd imagine it's partly a result of the location and partly the generation.

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  16. I've used all those terms you used,too, and had no idea they had racist origins. As nobody corrected me, I'm guessing it has just become perfectly acceptable lexicon.

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    1. You're probably right, and the more time that passes the more "mainstream" they will become.

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  17. At the end of the day it is never ok to use a racist term, I get that it can be really hard to know the origins of each expression but when you are made aware then delete, delete, delete are my thoughts on it all... there are so many other ways to express yourself in a public forum without being harmful or offensive to others, whether or not that was the intention, it doesn't change the way the reader comprehends the particular term and that's what matters.
    Some good insights here and a number of terms, Hooligans included, that I will add to the don't use list. Tina

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    1. That's probably a good rule. If someone is potentially going to find it offensive, don't use it.

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  18. Do you know the term "rule of thumb"? It's suppose to refer to the size of a stick that a man can beat his wife with. It, the stick, can't be bigger than his thumb. Wither this is true or not, I don't know. And what about "jerry rigged"? Or as older people say in The South "n..... rigged"? If you used words and terms and don't know their origin, I feel that you can't be called racist. But if you use them and know their full meaning, you need to stop and realize what you're saying is offensive. It's all about learning. So, if someone says something let them know. They may not know that a word is offensive to someone else. And them don't gets pissed of at each other! Peace to all!

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    1. You know, I've never actually thought of jerry rigged, but of course!

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  19. Good to be aware of offensive terms. But we all slip ...
    As a first-generation immigrant, I always found the term 'alien' weird. But with time, you realize they are just ingrained in people's heads so, they don't use them to purposefully hurt the listener.

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    1. My dad was a "displaced person", which is just a nice way of saying refugee. I remember him telling us how he used to get called wog all the time when he was younger, which I always thought was strange because he was German and I'd never heard it used for German people before.

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  20. When I was a teenager (about 100 years ago) I said, "Jewed!" in class. The teacher freaked out and I had to stay after class. At the time I didn't even know what I was saying. I didn't know that it was a reference to anything. Suffice it to say I was mortified and have never said it since.

    I think we can just to our best. Live and learn.

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    1. I imagine that a lot of people had classroom incidences where they said something they didn't realise was racist and the teacher lost it.

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  21. Well, this is how I see it. There are outright racists who will call you what they want, when they want and how they want. There are closet racists, who want to pretend all is well but will make underhanded subtle remarks and pretend that they really did mean what they said, when it's clear they did. They know that open racism will affect their jobs/relationships in life, so they keep it underground. There are those who are not racists but may say something racist sometimes without even knowing it. Once they are informed of the offence they should not repeat it.

    Words don't always have the same meanings they did years ago, so I can understand someone not being fully aware too.

    But to those who are clued up to what the words mean. They must remember that some of those words had a detrimental and devastating effect on the lives of millions of people, back in the day. People were murdered, mutilated, enslaved and much more. Slavery and the Holocaust comes to mind. Sometimes you have to be black, a gypsy or a Jew to understand what I'm saying. Would you make mockery of the holocaust if it was grandparents who died in those chambers? The answer would be a firm NO.

    Kellie. Well done for just honesty saying what happened. Very interesting comments too.

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    1. There's certainly a lot of different opinions about it!

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  22. Do you mean gypped as in ripped off? I thought that was spelt jipped? Either way goes to show everyone thinks differently.

    As for gypsys, when mum was a kid they lived on the river banks, stole from everyone and scared the kids in town. Bad stories about those people.

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    1. I guess there's a romanticised version of every minority. Sometimes it's true, and sometimes it probably isn't.

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  23. I'm from Alabama and when I was little the neighborhood we lived in went from a quiet neighborhood of mostly elderly white people to us being the minority. My parents never said a bad word against any of our neighbors but my grandparents had plenty to say. Especially when the next door neighbors were throwing knives at each other in their front yard and one landed right in front of me as I was playing. My grandparents freaked out and I think I learned every racist comment you could ever come up with that day. What I find funny about that, though, is that I've never been allowed to say "Indian giver" because my great-great-great grandmother and her twin sister were Native American princess or the equivalent thereof. Racism is all about fear and ignorance. People don't like what they don't know or don't understand. As far as these little sayings, I don't really think that someone is going to get that offended if they realize that you aren't using them to offend someone. You can usually tell if someone has ill intent behind the things that they say.

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    1. I'd think that your grandparents anger was more about the situation than racially motivated, but they just grasped onto what they knew would make the most impact.

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  24. That happy hooligan thing made me laugh, because we have a (US) National Guard base here. Now they fly drones, but not long ago (meaning 5ish years) they used to fly F-16s (really cool fighter jets). And their nickname was the Happy Hooligans.

    Hence the laugh, that a wing of the military was nicknamed after a bunch of drunk Irishmen. The guys that are protecting our country with billion dollar planes. :)

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    1. LOL! It's definitely an example of a word where all connection to the past has been lost.

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  25. I'm pretty sur ethe term "Peanut Gallery" comes from the Howdy Doody Show. "Peanut" was an affectionate term for a small child (My father still refers to his grandkids as "peanut.") and the seats where the "peanuts" sat was called the "peanut gallery." I could be wrong, but I don't think there is actually any racist origin for that one. You are, however going to Hell for saying Gypped. (kidding)

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    1. LOL! Of course I'm going to hell, there's a chair saved for me ... it's called the throne.

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  26. There are all sorts of things that I used to say without a thought, but have stopped saying because they are just plain wrong. Anyone ever play smear the queer? Popular recess game back when I was in grade school.

    Or trailer trash. Said all the time when I was growing up. It hit me one day when I was behind a school bus and a bunch of kids off to go home to their trailers just how bad that phrase is.

    Nice job with getting this thought out there.

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    1. That's true! I've never thought of trailer trash in that way, but you're absolutely right!

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  27. I had no idea that's where the origins of Gypped came from but now in context it would make total sense. I've never heard the term 'Indian Giver' which is a good thing.

    I remember for a while at my school that the phrase "That's so gay" was going around. It slipped out once when I was with my gay friend, I didn't even think about it, but I've NEVER said it again since.

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