Updated: Mar 12
People with lives can't keep up with the Culture War Du Jour. Just file it under #StuffOldPeopleSay
"When did 'Negro' become a bad word?" CC0 Public Domain on Pxhere
A few years ago, before Mom moved into the assisted-living wing of her long-term retirement home, she took me out to dinner at our favorite haunt, Jack Astor’s, while I was visiting in the States for the holidays.
We caught up on all the latest — Mom’s friends, mine back in Toronto, Connecticut and Ohio. My family got around back in the day.
I told her about a college friend Mom had met once, with whom I’d reconnected on Facebook, only to find he'd turned into a flaming in-your-face conservative. What had happened to him? He used to be such a nice guy.
But now he’d turned into an angry, loudmouthed, conspiracy-minded argumentative jerk, I complained.
In a voice loud enough that must have reached Ohio, Mom asked, “DO YOU THINK IT’S BECAUSE HE’S BLACK?”
“Mom, keep your voice down!” I ducked deep into the booth, hoping no one could see me, even though the entire Midwest must have heard. “No, I think it’s because he’s an idiot!”
Mom wears a hearing aid and doesn’t always realize how loud her voice gets. What she’d said wasn’t even offensive, if you asked me, but it contained one nuclear-level wordbomb guaranteed to offend someone, somewhere.
If we got any dirty looks I didn’t see them, but I said, “Not everything is about race, Mom.”
She virtue signals, but she doesn't know what that is.
My mother is remarkably socially aware for a Depression kid. She taught me how never to be a man’s victim, never to tolerate abuse or maltreatment. After she married my father they hightailed it in the thick of the night to Florida where he started a new job, and they a new life together, on the Q.T. so Dad’s avaricious ex-wife wouldn’t find them and make trouble.
A few years later I was born, and four years after, my brother.
In the 1960s Mom disapproved of the way Southerners regarded black people.
“They’re still fighting the Civil War down here,” she’d say. Which was only a century in the past.
Some of my earliest conversations with Mom were about race relations. How whites had treated blacks in the past, enslaved them, and regarded them as ‘inferiors’. How whites expressed their contempt for their fellow humans by saying things like The Negro needs to know his place and I don’t like uppity Negroes.
Mom gave me three acceptable terms for black people. You can call them black, colored, or Negro. Stick with those three and you won’t insult anyone, including black people. Sound advice for the 1960s. She also made it crystal-clear which word for Negroes you NEVER EVER used, under any circumstances, not even as a ‘joke’.
Times change, ideas change. Today ‘Negro’ has fallen out of favor, ‘black’ is still okay, ‘colored people’ is not, but ‘people of color’ is for reasons I don’t understand.
It’s the Peoples’ Front of Judea! Get it RIGHT!
Also, what constitutes polite conversation has evolved. Not everyone got the memo.
Mom offended every black aide within earshot when she opined she thought ‘the blacks’ were nicer than the white aides there.
My brother said ‘the blacks’ were all seething. “She was trying to pay them a compliment,” he explained. “I had to tell her we don’t make public comments about other races.”
In Mom’s non-color-blind defense, she was 87 years old. She’s done her best to guard against racism, and make super-certain her Southern-raised children didn’t grow up with the toxic racial loathing of the Great American Redneck. Y’all come back now, ya heah? Well not y’all, we don’t like your kind! Stay on y’own side of town!
Given the thoughtless, pervasive racism of The Silent Generation, I was never clear from where Mom’s early woke-ness in the first decade of the modern civil rights movement came from. She said her parents weren’t racist, but it didn’t sound like they’d ever talked about it growing up the way Mom and I did. Maybe it wasn’t as front-and-center in New York, when you wear privileged blinders in a segregated neighborhood.
At any rate, I figured the retirement aides still had it easier with Mom than many other residents, some of whom suffered from dementia or who could be difficult. I’ll bet some tossed some pretty skin-crawling insults at the mostly non-white staff taking care of them. I sometimes wondered how the Hispanic, black and hijab-clad Muslim aides fared in this Fox News-occupied facility.
Older people — because social cluelessness begins when you’re ‘adulted’ — sometimes make clumsy, offensive remarks not because they’re insensitive clods but sometimes what once was acceptable has changed. You lose touch with cultural transformation when you’ve got a career, a family, a mortgage. Then you get divorced, change jobs, move, develop health problems, take care of your ageing parents. ‘Woke’-ism is a luxury for the young of any generation.
Mom felt comfortable talking about race because she and my father became friendly with a black couple in Orlando. Mom met Lyla, married to a doctor, at a luncheon in the early years. Back then married couples held dinner parties and they discussed many of the race issues the civil rights movement had brought out of the janitor’s closet.
It’s just not always appropriate anymore.
Me, I try not to talk about racial issues with non-whites because it’s just too fraught with peril. If they bring it up, I watch everything I say. The rise of presidential hateful tweets coupled with woke extremism has rendered communication with ‘others’ toxic no matter where you stand. When you have to keep your ideas to yourself because you’re no longer certain what to say, it builds walls higher, stronger, and far more effectively than any political campaign promise.
Mom gave me the ‘ten-cent tour’ of the assisted-living facility she’s grown to love so much, which enabled her to blossom when she could no longer live alone. “Oh, there’s X,” she said, waving to an aide she loved. “He’s so nice and friendly. X!” she called. “Can you come over here? I’d like you to meet my daughter!”
X smiled, holding up a finger. “One minute,” he said, as he used an in-facility phone.
“I just love him,” Mom said. “He’s one of the nicest aides here. I think he’s gay but you know, I really don’t care!”
I glanced at X.
“Mom, don’t say that,” I said. “I don’t think he heard you but we don’t say these things in public.” I explained later why we keep those comments private. I also mentioned her remark about black aides and why we don’t talk about other people based on their skin color, sexual preference, or religion because it was too sensitive.
At some point she’d stopped paying much attention to the news because it drove her crazy. She missed the ongoing cultural revolution she’d paid far more attention to in the ’60s when America went bugspit crazy.
Maybe she had time to get ‘woke’ before it was cool, before feminism became a household word and Rosa Parks ignited a movement that will never roll back. Maybe Mom had more time to get ‘woke’ while married to her first husband, since they never had children.
Then Life Happens, and you miss a lot more memos.
About twenty years ago I got remonstrated for referring to ‘Orientals’. “We call them Asians.” Okay, but who changed the rules and forgot to inform me? And how is it offensive, since it means ‘of the Orient?’
One I’m-okay-with-being-Oriental lady says it’s outdated, but hardly insulting.
Today, labels-obsessed Millennials slam against their anti-label Gen X parents and Boomer grandparents. I can’t be arsed to keep up and I annoy people by questioning why a particular term is now ‘offensive’ when it was fine last week.
I look forward to embarrassing my niece and nephew thirty years from now with my politically incorrect opinions on transracial phytosexual quadro-gendered hybrid humans!
Undoubtedly, the aides at Mom’s living facility will one day embarrass the crap out of their own children.
“Mom! Don’t say ‘honky’! We don’t call white people that anymore!”
“Did you hear Grandpa say ‘ofay’ over dinner? I wanted to drown myself in my soup I was so embarrassed!”
“YOU KNOW WHAT? WHITE PEOPLE AREN’T AS RACIST AS THEY WERE BACK IN THE TEENS WHEN I WAS A RETIREMENT HOME AIDE! THOSE CAUCASIANS ARE JUST A LOT NICER!”
Smile through the red face. They mean well, you know they do!
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