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Posted by on Oct 24, 2017 in Blog, Essays, Personal, Politics | 4 comments

When Terms of Endearment Get Politically Incorrect

 

 

A recent Facebook discussion sparked curiosity and heightened my awareness about the ways we commonly address each other in public.

My discovery came as a surprise.  The lesson I learned was this:  I’m guilty of making spurious assumptions about what’s acceptable in the ways I address other people.

This self-reflection began yesterday when Terrell Johnson, a Facebook friend, posted the following message:

 

 

I thought about this post for a while.  I admit being guilty of the act described by Mr. Johnson as “dumb weird.”  Yes, I’ve called Black males “brother” plenty of times, even when I didn’t know them and I wasn’t entitled to that instant salutation of familiarity.  Of course, I didn’t mean anything harmful by it.  But, the salutation remains indomitably tinged with presumptions based on race.

“Hey, brother — how’s it going?”

Sounds innocent, enough.  But I’d probably never say it to a White guy.  Only a Black man.  That makes it racial — and inappropriate.

“Man” is another common term that’s been around for decades.  “Man” has been spoken across racial lines for as long as I’ve been alive.  Before 1960’s counterculture co-opted “man” as common slang between rockers and hippies, the term was deeply rooted in Black male self-empowerment.  It was even a quiet means of protest.  Indeed, “man” was the typical greeting Black jazz musicians often used to address each other during the Klan-clawed 1920’s when most of America was undergoing an ugly resurgence of bigotry and mass discrimination.  In many places, Black men, including old Black men who deserved respect were instead still called “boy” — often straight to their faces.  Millions of Black men were forced to stand there and swallow the degradation because to do otherwise would have been life-threatening.  And so, “man” became a small yet significant means of defiance against this cultural belittlement.

“Hey, man.”

I still use “man” quite frequently.  It’s just a common figure of speech for those who came of age during a certain era.  You might say it’s part of our linguistic DNA.  I see no reason to stop using “man,” because no one is offended and there are no racial connotations to its usage.

Meanwhile, younger people have created their own expressive lingo, using common salutations like “dude.”  Call it a “get off my lawn” seizure, but I don’t like this one bit.  Hey, man —  I’m not a “dude.”  No one calls me “dude.”  If I offended easily, I’d take issue if someone whom I did not know addressed me in that way, unless, of course, I was somehow cast in the movie remake of “The Big Lebowski.”  Then, calling me “dude” would be okay and besides I’d be collecting a fat paycheck for my willingness to lower myself to the depths of thinking of myself as a “dude.”

Whew.  I feel much better now.

Salutations between the sexes are equally as sensitive these days, and perhaps even more so given the alarming rise in reports of sexual harassment that have been in the news.  Most of these misunderstandings about everyday interaction can be solved by a healthy dose of common sense.  But I must also admit not knowing exactly where to draw some lines.

Though I was born and grew up mostly in the South, I’ve never fallen prone to its regional colloquialisms, particularly when it comes of informality.  For instance, “honey” is a term I’ve never used when addressing females.  I think it’s wrong, or perhaps it just doesn’t fit my manner of speaking.

Nonetheless, “honey” remains a very common expression in many areas of the country to this day.  It’s so common that most people probably don’t even consider it offensive.  Then again, I’ve never seen any actual studies on this — so, who knows?  Perhaps waitresses who get called “honey” all the time by their customers are quietly boiling deep down inside.  I don’t know.  Hence, it’s better not to use it at all is my policy.

About ten years ago, I started using “darling” a lot when addressing females — mostly when around co-workers, waitresses, and so forth.  Many people probably think of it as another way of saying “honey.”  I picked up this cutesy means of expression from the late writer Christopher Hitchens, who used it all the time and sounded downright suave and gentlemanly, which was quite endearing.  Then again, perhaps the English accent combined with his masterful use of prose that made “darling” acceptable within elite circles.  I’m not nearly so talented nor as lucky.  In my circles, “darling” probably raises some eyebrows.  And so, barring the occasional slip up from now on based purely on a bad habit, I won’t be using it any longer.

While I’m perfectly willing to alter (and even cease) my use of language based on changing times and cultural sensibilities, my best guess is that others will not be nearly so flexible.  Most people are deeply rooted in their ways of speaking and behaving and thinking.  They are utterly unaware, and if made aware by chance, they usually don’t care if others take offense to words and phrases they’ve considered “normal” all their lives.

Of course, playing the common sense card — we should probably be willing to forgive and dismiss the typical mutterings of the very aged, to which the rules of political correctness will never apply.  Old people who call someone “honey” might as well be speaking a different language from another time.  Occasionally, I still hear some old people refer to Blacks as “Negroes.”

C’est la vie.  I mean, what can you say?

I think the common bond on what’s truly offensive — be it everyday language or much worse, actions which lead to overt racism and/or sexual harassment — is very much rooted in the subservient role of the victim.  An older woman waiting tables who addresses me as “honey” is entitled to that latitude whereas I should not be able to get away with it.  After all, if I don’t like being called “honey,” I can get up and leave.  If she doesn’t like being called “honey,” well then, tough shit.  She pretty much has to suck it up and take it — because that’s her job.

By the way, it’s okay to call me “honey.”

When it comes to common expressions we use, what’s normal is no excuse.  Tradition is no justification.  At one time in America, the denigration of women and minorities was quite normal, acceptable and even encouraged within power circles.  It was a tradition.  Then, we gradually realized how hurtful the small things were and how those seemingly insignificant details buttressed a faux fever of racial, cultural, and gender superiority.  Changes in the way we address each other are gradual and slow, but they are certain, and that’s a good thing.

In short, just because you’ve been doing something the same way all your life, doesn’t make it right.  Just because it’s an old habit that’s comfortable to you, doesn’t make it right.  Just because you don’t think you’re not offending anybody, doesn’t make it right.

Times change.

We must also change with them.

 

Note:  Thanks to Terrell Johnson for sparking the idea for this column on Facebook.

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Posted by on Oct 18, 2017 in Blog, Essays, Las Vegas, Personal, Politics | 3 comments

A Wine Dinner Worth Remembering

 

 

A WINE DINNER WORTH REMEMBERING

Take a look at this photo (above).  Tell me where you think it’s from.  No cheating.  I’ll provide the answer at the conclusion of the column.

__________

Earlier tonight, Marieta and I had the great pleasure of attending a special four-course wine dinner at a local restaurant here in Las Vegas.  But this wasn’t a wine dinner like all the rest.  We were seated with a couple, aged in their late 60s.

The gentleman and I got to chatting.  Somehow, the topic of the Vietnam War came up.  We engaged in a spirited conversation about the masterful Vietnam War television series, produced by Ken Burns, on PBS.  By the way, this is must-see television for anyone who has not seen it yet.

During the course of our friendly conversation, the man revealed that he served two tours of duty in Vietnam.  He was stationed at Da Nang in 1968 and returned again in 1971.  He was assigned to a U.S. Air Force unit that provided routine maintenance on fighter jets.

Initially, the man was somewhat reluctant to talk about his memories of the war. But inquisitive (nosy) as I am, I was riveted by this moment — what amounted to a front-row, first-person account of one of the most transformative events in all of American history.  How fortunate I was to have this rare opportunity.  I wasn’t about to let this chance to learn more pass me by.  And so, I pressed on.

The man stated that he arrived in Da Nang in early 1968 at the tender age of 18.  He had lied about his age and joined the Air Force at age 17.  His very first night in Vietnam was the Tet Offensive.  For those unfamiliar with Vietnam War history, the Tet Offensive was a surprise attack that caught the American military totally off-guard and was arguably the shocking turning point of the war.

I listened intently over the next two hours, privileged to be given this, such a rare gift.  As we talked, or I should say — as he talked and I listened — the man became increasingly more open and willing to talk about the many experiences that had haunted him for nearly half a century.  It will take me some time to digest all the perspectives he shared with me, some of which were very troubling to hear.  Perhaps I shall write about them later, if appropriate.  I don’t know.  Perhaps some things are best left unsaid.

But what really struck me at one point during our conversation was when I sought to give the man an “out,” allowing him to escape my inquisitive and perhaps annoying curiosity and enjoy the evening with the rest of the 30 or people assembled in the room sipping on Pinot, Zinfandel, Cabernet, and Sangiovese.  Indeed, I casually tried to change the subject at this point, thinking my captive might leap at the chance to leave those painful memories of Vietnam behind.  But instead of taking the easy bait, the man wanted to talk — more.

I have a tear in my eye and a tremble in my wrists as I write this now, a few hours later thinking about the next thing the man revealed to me.

“No one ever asks me about my time over there.  It feels good to talk about it.”

Wow.  Just, fucking wow.

Here I was, thinking I was blessed to be able to gain a new perspective from his insight, and yet he was on the opposite side of the table, convinced that my empathy was in some small manner — therapeutic.  He thought I was doing him the favor.  I’m having trouble writing now.

For another 90 minutes or so, I heard stories and memories and events and perspectives that opened my eyes and broadened my knowledge about what thousands of good men (and women) went through — both over there then and back here later.

I won’t give the man’s name because he insists he’s a private person.  But I suspect there are many, many more veterans like him harboring memories that deserve and must and demand to be shared, real pain and emotional conflict that merits the soothing salve of a kindly ear, a gentle nod at the right instant, and a genuine but simple expression of gratitude.

I wonder how many others are out there now, tight-lipped, sitting in silence.  How many others of this war and that war and all the wars we’ve fought and continue to fight didn’t get the chance to sit down at a wine dinner and speak about what they saw and what they endured and how they survived the madness.  Hundreds?  Thousands?  Tens of thousands?  Why don’t we ask questions and why aren’t we listening?

Yes, the wine dinner was exceptional, but then most of my wine dinners are great.  But this one was of Grand Cru of an exceptional vintage, two souls de-cantered into one.

How blessed I was to have the opportunity to share a dinner with a Vietnam vet, and listen and learn.

__________

Finally, the answer to the question posed in the opening paragraph is — the photograph shows Da Nang, Vietnam.  This is a photograph of Da Nang, formally one of the largest American military installations in South Vietnam, as it looks today.

Times do change.  Places change also.  What should not and must not ever change is our curiosity for history and insatiable compassion for others, even strangers.

This was an evening I shall not soon forget.

 

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