On Saying the Wrong Thing

Last spring when we were getting ready to move back to the United States, after more than a decade of living overseas, I explained to someone that I was worried that I’d be speaking with left-leaning folks (a group I’m a part of) and I’d be misunderstood because I’d use the wrong words. Not derogatory words, just not the most up-to-date vernacular, that I’d miss some key phrase a person like me is expected to use when talking about a particular subject.

While living in Algeria, I produced a weekly YouTube show on American culture and sought to explain to Algerians some issues that might appear to be delicate to a foreigner. Like Civil Rights, like how there’s no one way to be “Hispanic,” like what “Black” food is. Often, someone in the YouTube comments would say something along the lines of “Would you stop saying Black? That is racist.” Then I’d usually say “Well, in America, we don’t consider saying ‘Black’ to be racist.” I often found myself saying “Americans say…” to Algerians and trying to keep it as simple as possible. For instance, I might have corrected an Algerian person who said “A gay” by telling them “Actually Americans say ‘a gay person’” without providing an exhaustive list of the other acceptable terms.

Point is there are ways I spoke about “controversial” things for a foreign audience and it’s different than talking about these issues in America. While abroad, I tried to stay in tune with the American discourse by reading, watching, and listening to tons of American-made content, but not being in the day-to-day of America unarguably causes that Americanness to fade a bit, a fact I know because a handful of times, I’ve been in conversation with someone here in the U.S. and they’re surprised to learn I’m American (which is shocking to me).

So now I’ve been back in America for nine months, living on a college campus where word choice feels especially fraught, and turns out, yes, things have changed in the past decade and there are pretty clearly right words and wrong words and using them or not using them can change how people perceive you.

I’ve attended a few storytelling sessions put on by a group at Princeton that features diverse graduate students talking about different topics. The sessions have revealed some unique perspectives (like that of a Chinese woman who grew up in Malaysia who never felt the shame of bringing “weird” foods to lunch in elementary school like some Asian-Americans experienced. In another session, a young Black woman talked about how she was largely ignored by the higher-ups at her Washington DC think tank internship, that is until it came time for an office photo, when she pushed to the center of the of the picture.)

These storytelling sessions start with a disclaimer from the hosts about how to respectfully engage with the content that includes a recommendation to “sit with your discomfort” should something send up your shackles. I found myself nodding along with that as person who feels college is exactly the space where we should be challenging our ways of thinking, even if it’s uncomfortable. But there is also a disclaimer, a few sentences after the first, to “care for yourself” and leave the session if you feel that would be good for you. These two directives feel contradictory. Who is the person who should sit with their discomfort and who is the person who should leave the room if they become uncomfortable?

Back when I was a reporter at the Kalamazoo Gazette, I wrote a feature story on the effects Russia banning adoptions would have on local families and I used the term “put up” for adoption. Someone wrote me to say that term harkens to when children or enslaved people (which we then called “slaves”) were literally “put up” on blocks and auctioned off. I saw how the term I’d used could be offensive or at least is connected to something terrible and it cost me nothing to instead say “placed for adoption” henceforth.

I think if a person tells you “Hey, we actually don’t say that anymore and now we say this,” then you should just use the term because why not? What’s the point in holding on to terms that someone has deemed offensive and also, of course language evolves. But I also think it’s reasonable to ask who are the people and organizations that decide the euphemisms we should use if we want to be deemed people who are respectful, supportive, and good? (Remember when we were told to use LatinX, and then Hispanic people were like “We don’t say that and actually we don’t like it”?)

Writing in an Atlantic article called “The Moral Case Against Equity Language,” George Packer outlines progressive institutions’ banning of certain words such as “stand” – as in “take a stand” – and “blind” – as in “Legislators are blind to climate change” – as offensive to people who have disabilities. “A new term wins an argument without having to debate,” Packer writes. He pointed to the San Fransisco Board of Supervisors which now uses the term “justice-involved person” instead of “felon.” I can’t help but think if the recent theater production on Princeton’s Campus by Reginald Dwayne Betts called Felon: An American Washi Tale had instead been called A Person Experiencing the Prison System.

Thankfully, artistic forms such as theater, novels, poetry, and most music and visual arts seem to still be permitted to use all sorts of words and phrases that could offend. (Actually, even Betts, in telling his own story of incarceration and life after, said when he met his future wife he referred to her as “shorty” and then he told the audience not to call a woman shorty, and actually, don’t call anyone shorty, it’s not okay anymore). I like to think that the fact that (almost) all words are available to art without the artist being morally impugned as being rooted in society’s collective understanding that the words we actually use in speech hold an evocative power far greater than bland jargon phrases. Jargon kills feeling. And art must have feeling.

I recently received a survey from the Princeton Art Museum, which is set to reopen next year. One question the survey asked is “Do you agree it is the role of an art museum to teach people about social justice?” I was thinking about some of my responses to this survey when I recently walked into Manhattan’s Cooper Hewitt museum, a museum ostensibly about design. (And indeed there was one design-y exhibit about Hector Guimard, the Art Nouveau architect to gave Paris “its curves” via his designs for the Paris Metro stations.) On a different floor, a glossy eight-legged mahogany end table caught my eye. My first thought was it was interesting there were so many legs and I bent down to read the placard, wondering if its creation represented a departure in furniture design, as had Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1930s office desk, which I’d recently become fascinated with after seeing it at the Met. The placard said it was an “elephant trunk table” designed by Otto Schmidt in Vienna around 1900. It read:

“Foreign to Europe, elephants were a popular attraction in turn-of-the-century circuses and zoos. Believed to be obedient animals relied upon for heavy work, they came to represent the colonial goal of taming those who were colonized. Mahogany — used to make this table – is a tropical hardwood with a long Indigenous history; it likely derives is name from a Nigerian word used by enslaved African laborers in the Caribbean.”

Okay. So elephants — which have very little to do with this table other than someone at some point might have decided each leg looked like an elephant trunk — represent colonialism. And the word “mahogany” is a word that was used by Nigerian people, and some Nigerian people were enslaved in the Caribbean. While this placard wasn’t necessarily jargon, it felt to me that the person or committee who wrote it made a moral decision that the tale of a small table was the perfect time to preach that design is a shallow interest to hold while evils like colonialism and slavery exist. I thought back to that museum survey I’d taken and this sign struck me as a prime example of how to not teach social justice in an art museum. However, I’ve never forgotten a placard in a Spanish museum next to a painting from a German expressionist about how a Nazis banned many German artists whose work they thought represented views counter to fascism.

On Princeton’s campus, there are words that are erased, such as the name Woodrow Wilson, the former president of Princeton and former President of the United States and known racist dude, and there are words that must be said. In a classroom setting with young people, if there are introductions, you’d look like a real asshole if you didn’t clarify your pronouns, and before the opening speech of a public event, the speaker must acknowledge that Princeton University was built on the land of the Lenape people, a disclaimer often delivered in the same tone of voice of “silence your cell phones.”

I was legitimately worried about not using the right words but it turns out learning the right things to say wasn’t difficult. I am parsing what people say and why they said it all the time these days. I wonder if these language changes and additions rooted in the moral high ground do anything to serve the offended party. (Who even is the offended party in the elephant table example?) And I think using some of the new euphemisms or expected phrases can feel performative. Are people just saying the right things or are they doing the right things too?

1 Comment

  1. I think the last sentence of your article is the whole point. A person may know all the “right” euphemisms and pronouns and feel they have done their duty to advance liberal causes. But do they vote, do they contact their representatives to demand change, do they join and volunteer their time to relevant organizations. Words are fine. But it’s action that can lead to positive change.

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