A recent column by Don Amend, “What’s in a Name,” and the debate over the names of two fairly insignificant bumps on the Wyoming landscape remind me of just how drastically our …
A recent column by Don Amend, “What’s in a Name,” and the debate over the names of two fairly insignificant bumps on the Wyoming landscape remind me of just how drastically our speaking habits have changed during my lifetime.
Not that long ago, in fact all through my school years, we used racial slurs — often with a total lack of awareness of the damage they could do. I came face to face with that for the first time in college.
It happened in a meeting. A group of us were seated in rows of chairs with everyone hoping someone else would volunteer for some disagreeable task I no longer remember. I do vividly recall, as the presiding officer, resorting to a method we used to choose who was “it” on the schoolground and in neighborhood games.
We would point to a different person per word and chant, “Eenie, meenie, miney, mo. Catch a N-word by the toe. If he hollers make him pay, $50 every day. My mother told me to choose this very best one.” The finger would stop on the one who would then be “it.”
I never forgot what came next. A girl (white) who’d grown up in Hawaii stood up in front of everyone and said, “What did you just say?” Or, something like that. I didn’t understand.
Nor, as I recall did, did anyone else. The meeting went on. But for weeks thereafter, I puzzled over the scene and the words, mentally defending myself to myself. It was only a kid’s chant. It didn’t mean anything, so I was right to use it and she was wrong to object. Really! She was at an almost 100% white college and needed to get over it.
I’d like to believe that the incident actually changed me. It didn’t. But I didn’t forget, either. Nor did I utter that chant again ... ever. Yet, from time to time I’d remember and tell myself that it was just words
At the same time, I was learning that America was not “the land of the free” but the home of Jim Crow, lynchings and, everywhere, massive discrimination. This became personal when, in my first year in my first job, I had to escort a group of senior Ghanaian intelligence officers on a weekend visit to Williamsburg, Virginia.
You can imagine: A young, white woman with five black men in pre-civil rights legislation southern Virginia. They were the guests of the U.S. government, but that and a lot of cash barely got us in the door of the Williamsburg Inn.
My inescapable conclusion? There was nothing free or secure about America if your skin was colored. What I still didn’t realize was that our use of language reinforced and even justified our discriminatory and often casually or deliberately cruel behavior.
That was then. Wouldn’t it be nice to say now that our language and customs have changed so much that we truly are “the land of the free and the home of the brave”? Wouldn’t it be lovely to believe that our children and grandchildren are growing up into what will be a truly multicultural and multi-ethnic world, free of the prejudices that accompany language usage?
Mostly, I do think we’re trying until something happens that makes me wonder. Like the sudden rise to fame of two insignificant and previously obscure bumps on the county landscape with their inaccurate and doubly offensive name: Squaw Teats.
No one needs me to say that the term “squaw” is a pejorative for a native American woman while the Oxford Dictionary tells us that “teat” is a nipple of the mammary gland of a female ... animal.
I won’t belabor the above point. Nor do I need to stress just how ugly and disrespectful the name is. Maybe worse, photos of the two hills show they look nothing like a female animal’s nipples but, at a stretch and in the minds of men who’d spent too much time hatless in the sun, more like breasts.
So why not change the name? The rationale for keeping it — historical accuracy — is almost enough to bring a smile to an otherwise humorless subject. Why? Because the state of Wyoming has deliberately and vigorously purged our maps of the more “colorful” place names bestowed by lonesome old-timers.
Too bad they missed that one.
Well, history moves on, every day sending hurtful names, words, and phrases into the part of history where they belong — the ashcan — leaving us as better people and a kinder society.