We all let loose with the unintentional on occasion—like at our family gathering after my brother’s funeral.
“There are two chicken dishes here. This red pepper thing,” I announced, spearing a breast of ruby colored chicken sprinkled with large pepper flakes, “and real chicken.” I looked over at a plate of perfectly golden brown thighs and breasts.
My favorite aunt is a fantastic cook. She now stared at me, her eyes widening as the words “red pepper thing and real chicken” blanched her consciousness. She reached for a piece of the red pepper chicken, her eyes never leaving my face.
“Uh. Did you make it?” I stammered.
“Yes,” she nodded. She spoke with just a hint of a hitch, a reminder of her stroke several years ago.
My sister reminds me that the proper use of language (and a little tact) is a virtue—probably on equal par with cleanliness being next to Godliness.
“I didn’t mean…it’s just that… I don’t eat chicken. I’m a vegetarian.” I stuttered as I pulled the fork from the peppered bird and turned away.
“Great,” I thought. “That made things so much better, didn’t it?” Not really…
I want to change the way we use language. I want to be the word-super hero, the one who swoops in and wraps folks in a cape before they say or write the stupid things that have been churning like butter in their brains—and that they may regret later. I want to warn them that thoughts become sound and that sound has power. I want to spread the gospel that we can choose between sounds that uplift and those that demean, hurt, and disempower. I want to stop the hemorrhaging of unconscious expressions pouring into our lives like river banks overflowing.
Every day, it seems that someone has plunged his or her feet into the cesspool of bad public relations caused by stupidity, bigotry or both.
“Each tree had 56 oranges. If eight slaves pick them equally, then how much would each slave pick?” and this:
“If Frederick got two beatings per day, how many beatings did he get in one week?”
The Georgia school district spokeswoman who responded to the national outrage around these homework questions for third to fifth graders said that they were trying to blend history with math. I don’t believe this for a second. Still, somewhere I heard that you can always give someone the benefit of the doubt.
It would be more appropriate and truthful to blend southern segregationist history with math if a sentence began with: “Ten African slaves planned their escape from a plantation over three days. They would have to go ten miles a day to get to freedom…”—or something like that.
If I could wave a magic wand (ah, Harry Potter…), I would imprint the advice of my elders onto the brain cells of every person’s consciousness.
“Think before you speak.” Or write.
Working against intentional bigotry or stupidity is bad enough, but ignorant expressions spew from the mouths of well-meaning friends, family, associates, and colleagues every day. Prejudicial and two-dimensional representations of other people, cultures, and belief systems demean and dehumanize in ways that reach far beyond the boundaries of race and ethnicity.
But we are so resistant to change. We resist questioning our assumptions about people, places and things. We resist acknowledging the possibility that something we say could be demeaning. We resist hearing others tell us how our words sounded to them. We resist empathy, which allows us to hear another’s truth of what they have experienced from us. We resist self-exploration that leads to self-forgiveness and would rather wallow in the sewage of defensiveness and/or guilt. Resistance is the linchpin of bigotry.
When Gallaudet College, a college for the deaf in Washington, DC, was looking for a president in the late eighties and the students insisted on a deaf president, some folks wondered out loud if the college was ready for a deaf president. Had deaf students evolved enough to manage their own affairs? After all, if they couldn’t hear… Well-intentioned folks who had lived and worked with the deaf for many years were expressing undeniably patriarchal views.
Do our words uplift or demean and humiliate? Do our words inspire or create fear, sadness, pain, and separation?
We’ve only just begun. Ah, Harry…may I borrow your wand?