I’ve never used the N-word other than to talk about the N-word.
We’ve probably never heard it as much as we have in the past couple of weeks.
I’m not going to talk about Saline County Commissioner Jim Gile … much. I’m pretty much with Jesus on this one, who, when a woman was caught in adultery, said, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7).
I think it’s healthy to have the discussions we’ve been having. But, since I’m not black, I don’t think I have the right to say whether Gile should resign or not. I don’t think we haolis (Hawaiian for whites) can feel the full weight of hurt or humiliation that comes from that term.
I’ve certainly put my foot firmly in my mouth over the years. I’ve said things that were hurtful and insensitive, things I regret.
My parents would never in a million years use the N-word. But my dad did use a phrase with dubious origins. He used to say, once in a great while, if one of us kids had our hand in the cookie jar or some other off-limits place, “Get your cotton-pickin’ hands out of there!”
A couple of years ago, my son and I were talking about racial epithets; I don’t remember why. He told me he heard my dad use that phrase, and Kris told him, “Grandpa, you can’t say that!”
I asked why.
“Because it refers to slaves!” Kris said, looking at me incredulously.
It had never occurred to me. As far as I was concerned, it was a random group of syllables that meant Dad really wanted me to get away from whatever I was into, immediately. The literal meaning of the words had never entered my conscious thought process.
So, there but for the grace of God go I.
One of my friends said that white folks picked cotton, too, of course. But the point is that it refers to people who are perhaps lower on the totem pole, to use an American Indian term. … It’s hard to get away from those racial references, isn’t it?
I went online to look up racial slurs. Wow. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of them. Seems we’ve been actively putting each other down for a long, long time.
And it’s confusing, if you don’t keep up with political correctness. When I first heard the term “black” referring to those we called “Negroes” or “colored” at the time, I thought it sounded course. It reminded me of Black Panthers, who were rather militant.
Now, “black” is preferred, “colored people” is antiquated, but “people of color” is fine.
And then, there’s the word “niggardly,” which, etymologically speaking, is completely unrelated to the N-word. But because it sounds similar, people have gotten fired for using the term, which means “stingy” or “miserly.” Best to stay away from that one, although people at the Saline County Commission meeting Tuesday tried to put a version of the less-offensive word in Gile’s mouth. He, admirably, declined to revise history.
For my generation, one of the most common slurs, although not racial, is “retarded.” It’s been used for all kinds of things, not just people: This test is retarded, this car is retarded, these shoes are retarded. When it gets to that point, it loses its original meaning altogether, but it still is hurtful for those who are sensitive to it.
But everybody says, “You’re crazy,” or “That’s insane.” As far as I know, those aren’t considered slurs, are they?
Personally, throughout middle school and high school, I was called “Shorty,” “Pint-size” and “Snoid.” Then, Randy Newman wrote a song about short people. Some of the lyrics:
“Short people got no reason to live
They got little hands, little eyes
They walk around tellin’ great big lies
They got little noses and tiny little teeth
They wear platform shoes on their nasty little feet
Well, I don’t want no short people … ’round here.”
Thanks a lot, Mr. Newman; that really helped my self-esteem.
It turns out, Newman says he meant the song to point out prejudice, not expand it. Based on all the additional ribbing I got when the song came out, I don’t think it worked. And of course I know this is nowhere near as offensive as being called the N-word.
Back to the situation here, according to our story in the April 6 edition, “In addition to building Habitat homes, Gile has been involved with CAPS, DVACK, the Food Bank, Salvation Army and Salina Rescue Mission, and he helped start Hunger Barrel, Souper Bowl and Project Salina.
“In 1989, Gile was awarded the J.C. Penney Golden Rule award for his volunteer work and he was given the Salina Award for Outstanding Citizen in 2009.”
I’ve never volunteered enough to garner even an honorable mention. I give money to charity, but it takes a special kind of person to go out the door, get your hands dirty and give up your time.
If Gile is willing to embrace sensitivity training (along with everyone else in the meeting who snickered at his ultra faux pas), should he be given a second chance? I don’t know.
One friend of mine said that righteous indignation drives the wedge between us even deeper.
“We’re all trying to learn and grow,” she said. “He could become the greatest advocate for this kind of sensitivity.”
But I said I wouldn’t talk about Gile … much.
This column first appeared in the Salina Journal on April 20, 2013.