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.
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.
We must also change with them.
Note: Thanks to Terrell Johnson for sparking the idea for this column on Facebook.