Richard Cohen at the Washington Post wrote an interesting column today titled “Words Heard Differently”. He starts by riffing off George Bernard Shaw’s observation that The USA and Great Britain are two countries separated by a common language. Today, it’s white Americans and African Americans who are suffering that fate. How true that is.
A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned a story coming out of Chicago about a woman who had gotten in trouble for saying that her next door neighbor kids were “climbing in a tree like monkeys”. The problem is that her neighbor kids are black. Their father had a fit and called the police. I expected my husband to roll his eyes at the father’s ridiculous reaction to this woman’s comment. Instead a rather nasty argument ensued. Where I heard an innocuous figure of speech that I’ve used about my own kids, my husband heard an ugly reference to the old characterization of African Americans as some sort of primate. My darling husband has been rather ornery lately and I figured that accounted for his response. So we called a couple of African American friends including one who is one of the most mild mannered men I know to ask their opinion. All of them, including my exceptionally mild mannered friend said that they too would throw a fit if someone referred to their kids as monkeys. I realized that although I thought (and still kind of think) that this is ridiculous, my opinion wasn’t really the one that mattered on this point.
One of the comments made by our mild mannered friend which kind of caught me off guard in regards to the monkey comment was, “it’s not like this (an African American being upset over being referred to as a monkey) is the first time this has happened. Of course people would know that we’d find that offensive. It’s not like they don’t know.”
The thing is that the white people I know are largely ignorant of exactly these sorts of things. Heck, I’ve been married to a black man for years and the fact that referring to kids climbing in a tree as acting like monkeys would be offensive if they are black had never even occurred to me. But there is a real sense among many African Americans that white people know these things and that their claims to the contrary are disingenuous. Or at least a sign of inexcusable ignorance.
I guess that from the perspective of an African American this makes some sense. I have never literally compared a black person to a monkey. I have never heard another white person do so. I am aware that this imagery was used in the past, but honestly, the fact that people used to use corn cobs for toilet paper in the past has more resonance with me than comparisons of black people to apes. It just hasn’t been on my radar.
However, my husband has been called a gorilla in a way which was clearly meant to be a racial insult. He grew up seeing those insulting images of black people as apes and could identify with them and wonder if that was how white people would see him. In his neighborhood, it was common knowledge saying someone looked like an ape was worse than insulting his mother or his manhood. He is well aware of the power of this language. His assumption is that I would be as well.
All of this makes me think of a conversation I had with my oldest son yesterday about the book To Kill A Mockingbird. We were discussing the importance of the character Boo Radley to the story. You probably recall that at the beginning of the story Scout (the main character) and her brother are obsessed with getting a look at their reclusive neighbor and make elaborate plans to get him to come out. The adults around them all tell the children to leave him alone. If he wanted to come out he would and it was rude and unkind to try and harass him into coming out. The kids simply couldn’t comprehend how what they were doing was wrong. Wanting to stay inside all the time was wrong; wanting to get a glimpse of a neighbor was perfectly normal.
It was a measure of the maturity which Scout gains over the course of the book that at the end, after Boo Radley has saved her and her brother from a murderous attack, she sees things differently. In the end, a more mature Scout understands just what the adults had tried to tell her at the beginning of the book: that exposing Mr. Radley to unwanted attention is unkind and potentially cruel. The fact that Mr. Radley’s lifestyle was unfathomable and alien to her and her sensibilities didn’t give her license to insist that he be made to change to suit her needs and desires.
I think that often when whites and African Americans are dealing with each other, we behave like immature Scouts. We want to be able to tell the other what is reasonable and right without regard for the other’s perspective. Because I think that the other’s reaction, thinking or way of dealing with life is ridiculous, my job is to convince you of this truth and expect you to adjust yourself accordingly. However, a much more productive and probably mature way of dealing with our differences would be to simply accept them as reality and respect that. African Americans often see our country differently than white Americans do. They sometimes hear words spoken differently than many white people do. White people often really are clueless about the differences in our perceptions of the same things. Rather than insisting that the differences are the problem and insisting that the other side MUST see the error of their ways and change, we probably just need to understand that the differences just are. They are a reality we need to deal with and make some accommodation for. I still think it’s silly, but I will never say that black kids climbing trees are “acting like monkeys”. It’s a matter of respect and maturity, IMO. Two things which are sorely lacking between white and black Americans.
For my previous take on the dynamic of “white person inadvertently messes up, black person goes ballistic”, see here.