That's Very White Of You

Discussion in 'Evolution of Language' started by Ken Anderson, Jun 15, 2015.

  1. Ken Anderson

    Ken Anderson Greeter
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    Recently, I read a series of novels that were written for and about Boy Scouts in the early 1900s, and have begun reading another (by a different author) that was written in 1922. While it is clearly not the intention of either of the authors to be hateful, some of the words and phrases that were used were very racist, although I would bet the authors never considered themselves to be so. Both series take place in New England, the last in Maine. Neither were placed in the South.

    This was before my time, but racism was so ingrained in society that these phrases were apparently commonplace.

    Phrases like, "That's very white of you," in reference to something good that someone had done and, in another case, "He's as white as anyone," when the person being referred to is said to be an okay guy.

    I have heard these phrases before but only used sarcastically, and not as a regular form of speech. I grew up in the UP of Michigan however, an area where there were no black people. We did use the rhyme, "Eeny, meeny, miny, moe, which used the "n" word, but I don't think I even realized that it referred to black people. "Eeeny," "meeny," "miny," and "moe" didn't mean anything in particular, so I wasn't looking for meaning in the rhyme.

    I don't think I was aware of racism but, of course, I didn't have to be. I certainly didn't hate anyone based on their race and saw no reason to think that someone was less of a person based on the color of their skin. That just didn't make sense. Yet some of the language was there, even in the early 1970s.

    Then, when I was in college, I had a black roommate. Backing up just a bit, when I was registering, I was asked if I had any objections to having a black roommate and I thought the question was odd. Anyhow, at one point, he brought in a bag of Brazil nuts. Since I wasn't too crazy about the things anyhow, I had never bothered to learn the real name for them, so I had to ask him what he called them. His answer surprised me.

    "I've always called them nigger toes."

    "Maybe we should try to find something else to call them."

    "Brazil nuts will do."
     
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  2. Val White

    Val White Active Member
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    Took a sharp intake of breath when reading your comment Ken as it recalled one episode many years ago involving a charming Japanese family. I was friends with their daughter and the gibes she took were absolutely appalling. Nip, Cross eyed etc were everyday occurrences which they bore better than I did.
     
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  3. Tom Locke

    Tom Locke Very Well-Known Member
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    One of the novels I studied when I did my Eng Lit degree was Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. I always regarded it as an anti-colonialist work. Certainly, there are words used that would, quite rightly, be unacceptable today, but context is everything and we are talking about a book written at the end of the 19th century.

    I was disappointed and surprised to read that Chinua Achebe, possibly Africa's finest novelist, regarded Heart of Darkness as racist. To put it mildly, he absolutely slaughtered the book. It was interesting, then, that when I lived in Eritrea, I came across a copy of it and lent it to some of my (African) colleagues. I offered no opinion, not wanting to influence their thoughts. All of them - five in total - told me separately that they thought the book to be very much against colonialism, imperialism and racism.
     
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  4. Ken Anderson

    Ken Anderson Greeter
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    Others that I grew up with, included "Jew" and "Gyp" being used as verbs, meaning to cheat or swindle someone. "Jew," I understood, referred to the Jewish people but again, I didn't have any context, as it was just a common saying. I didn't realize that "Gyp" was short for Gypsy, and wasn't sure of the origins of that word until later. There were, of course, also the Polish jokes, which many don't realize were part of a propaganda campaign begun by the Nazis.

    My father, who was a prisoner of the Japanese during World War II, referred to the Japanese, not with gibes, but with hatred. He said that the Japanese were horrible people, with no sense of humanity. Before I knew that he had been a prisoner of the Japanese, I assumed that he was referring to the fact that they were his enemies during the war, so I commented, once, that they probably didn't like him very much either, and that didn't go over well. He did not hate the Germans, although two of his brothers had been killed in Europe during the war, so it was purely from personal experience, since he fought in the Pacific and had no contact with the Germans during the war.

    Exactly, and I find it sad when valuable literature is banned by schools and elsewhere on the basis of using words and phrases that were common in the days they were written. By putting such literature in its historical context, we can appreciate the fact that we don't generally speak of people that way anymore.
     
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  5. Shirley Martin

    Shirley Martin Veteran Member
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    One thing I regret is that the Uncle Remus stories are no longer politically correct. I'm sure everyone has heard of the Tar Baby story. The stories were based on old African fables and were told in dialect. Like Aesop's fables they contained lessons. They were also funny. What better way to learn than from a story that makes you laugh?
     
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  6. Ken Anderson

    Ken Anderson Greeter
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    We had the Br'er Rabbit books when I was a kid and, for some reason, I found them to be scary. I can't remember why now.
     
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  7. Shirley Martin

    Shirley Martin Veteran Member
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    I can't imagine why. When Br'er Rabbit got stuck to the Tar Baby, I remember laughing so hard! Actually I read an updated version to the children at the Story Time when I was a librarian. The children all loved it. It was one of the few stories they would sit still and listen to.
     
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  8. Pat Baker

    Pat Baker Well-Known Member
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    It is interesting the names that people will call other people that they do not know or how a person can have an expectation of how they will be treated around other people. I know African American people who are afraid of white people and I know white people who are afraid of African American people. It is so sad to me and neither of them have a reason other than what they have been told by someone that the other person is the devil.
     
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  9. Brittany Houser

    Brittany Houser Well-Known Member
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    I don't appreciate racism in any way, but I don't believe in banning books based on past cultural biases either. Uncle Remus, the old Warner Brothers cartoons, etc., are priceless. I have some friends who adopted two black babies. As soon as they were old enough to read, they bought them a copy of "Little Black Sambo!" The girls loved it. They have been raised to ignore racism, and they are two of the happiest, sweetest people I've ever known. I understand that people are hurt by racist comments and attitudes, but I wish we could all just consider the source, and move on.
     
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  10. Ken Anderson

    Ken Anderson Greeter
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    The works of Mark Twain and John Steinbeck are being banned from schools over political correctness. How are we ever supposed to appreciate who we are now if we refuse to acknowledge our past?
     
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  11. Tom Locke

    Tom Locke Very Well-Known Member
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    As any historian will tell you, to understand the present, we need to understand the past. If we take things to a 'logical' conclusion, the works of Shakespeare, Boccaccio, Chaucer and others would be excluded.
     
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  12. Brittany Houser

    Brittany Houser Well-Known Member
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    Well said! We need to be able to see how we've come as a society, and as individuals. It's important to know these things, and without historical references, how can we put stops on ourselves in the present and future? BTW, You named two of my favorite authors. It's a shame most young people don't even know who they are.
     
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  13. Ken Anderson

    Ken Anderson Greeter
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    It's the schools that are banning the books. They banned Steinbeck in large part because they felt his books were too negative and depressing, and Twain for using racial epithets and stereotypes. Wouldn't it be better to use these books as teaching tools?
     
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  14. Shirley Martin

    Shirley Martin Veteran Member
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    I just hope they don't ban "Gone With the Wind."
     
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  15. Mikhail Bulgakov

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    Lots of stories of language and racism for sure. I've several stories, I'm 70, and here is another. I have been a full-time RV solo for nine years, and been back and forth across the U.S. a couple of times. I was in Alabama, right on the upper panhandle where it butts Florida. Talking with a guy I barely knew, who was kind enough to give me a lift back to town after briefly depositing my RV at a storage spot, he said, ver batim, "I don't mind the northern niggers, it's those southern niggers I can't stand." Struck me as a strange comparison, as the "N" word was used to describe both southern and northern--he was speaking of Florida, he said--inhabitants.

    Like some other odious factoids, there was a germ of historical context to it. Around the time of the Civil War, troublesome slaves, like runaways, apple pie stealers, etc., were often relocated further south by way of sale and resale, or "gentleman's" agreement. The further south, the harder for slaves to run to freedom to free states in the north. Punishment for running and other offenses could also be levied heavier with less notice, the further south. So, slaves with an attitude were in fact found more often in southern parts of bordering slave states. This is speculation on my part, and a generalization, but at least gives some possible meaning to his comparison.

    That's not to say that a minimal percentage of slaves relocated would change the character of a big portion of a state. But the perception the guy shared is the type that can grow its own set of legs over time, providing a premise for more racism, and more "sophisticated" racism. I would bet the guy told himself that he wasn't a racist, because he could distinguish between a good "N" and an evil "N".
     
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    Last edited: Feb 12, 2019
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