When we lived in London, I repeatedly offended a black, Zambian friend by calling my husband “Coloured.” Finally, exasperated with the lectures and reprimands, I told her, “I don’t call you ‘Coloured,’ I call him ‘Coloured,’ because that’s what he wants me to call him. If he asked me to call him a pink elephant, I would!”
In South Africa, “Coloured” was one of the four class distinctions mandated by the apartheid government, along with White, Black, and Indian (those brought from India by the English to work as slaves). In my experience, among people of color in South Africa, there is no such thing as politically correct language. One Sunday I was in a Zulu church and the wife of the pastor, wanting to publicly acknowledge three women who had blessed her, said “she’s built like a drum” to refer to one of them being overweight; “she’s about to drop in the grave” describing the woman who was elderly; and “she’s not all there” (you’ve got to be kidding me!) introducing the lady who was mentally handicapped. Aghast as I was by her descriptions, I couldn’t deny her sincerity and the joy each recipient experienced at her gratitude and recognition.
A couple of weeks ago, at the end of a long and gratifying citizenship day in Yakima, we were invited for tacos and margaritas in someone’s backyard. It was a lovely evening, breezy and cool, and the grill sent rich, spicy flavors floating through the air like dandelion seeds. After eating round one, Patrick wandered behind the grill and, as men do, began discussing grilling techniques with the chef. That led to talking about different animals (my apologies to vegetarians) that are commonly grilled, with the conversation bouncing from English (British and American) to Spanish to Afrikaans (Patrick’s mother tongue) to Chichewa (the national language of Malawi, where we lived for several years). The Chichewa word for “goat” is “mbusi,” which rhymes with the crude slang word that, in American English, stands for “kitten” . . . (?) A burst of laughter from the two told me that they were “up to no good” so I kept one ear to their conversation and one eye out on the rest of the crowd. Though no one else was tracking with the not-quite-appropriate direction their humor had turned, the hilarity at the linguistic fender bender rolled over the yard and the joy was palpable. These two men connected in a way that was mutual and authentic, though decidedly not politically correct.
Presently in the U.S., dialogue (or monologue, depending on who has the mic) around such issues as race, social justice, politics, poverty, class, etc., swings from one extreme (Trump’ian – heavy on insults and threats but light on facts) to the other (non-discriminatory – where people are so concerned about semantics that they never have meaningful interaction with someone different from themselves.) I have experienced what you find in delta regions around the world, where the meeting of fresh water and salt water produces richness you find nowhere else in nature because they are different and live in symbiotic relationship.
So next time you are either in or witness to a conversation that is seemingly offensive, don’t be so quick to label or interfere. Watch, listen, and ask yourself:
Is someone trying to offend, either by what they say or by what is left unsaid?
Is anyone oblivious of the emotional impact their words are having?
Is there awareness (and this is a tough one) of the privilege one person may have over another person because of historical and institutional oppression?
Even writing this, I find myself uneasy, knowing there will be someone offended by the seminal word in this story, which, I suppose, is the whole point. Uncensored words, like the Mexican hot sauce, Valentina Salsa Picante, can fry your tongue and your sensibilities. On the other hand, saccharine conversations may avoid offence, but still be devoid of authentic flavor or human connection. That destitution was not what my husband, or anyone in that backyard, experienced in the exchange of food, stories, and laughter.