No matter how diligently we attend to the clarity and precision of our language, the meaning of our words can and will be misunderstood. Those times can be frustrating. Consider the many arguments, the times when friends were hurt, and relationships shattered because someone thought you to be insensitive or something or someone other than who or what you are. I'm a rather kind individual, slow to anger and eager to please, and I don't know how many times I've had to apologize to others for hurting their feelings. Words can hurt far more often than we intend, but it doesn't mean that we should stop trying to be vigilant in our attempts to be compassionate.
I still make an effort to be understood all while knowing I don't have control of the interpretation of my words. My interest in language must have begun when I moved to the south from Chicago. I was 11 years old, in the midst of an emotional separation from friends and family, constantly being misunderstood by my classmates day in and day out. It got to me at times. It wasn't just my midwestern dialect; there were entire aspects of my vocabulary that my peers couldn't understand. Being a child who desperately needed to fit in, I quickly changed my way of speaking to fit the people around me, sometimes consciously, at other times completely outside of my awareness, and to this day the process of transformation impresses me. I'm not sure that it's something that I could do today. My experience with dialect and culture shock led me to find code switching interesting, not just with regionalism but within and between races as well.
In Chicago, I went to a nearly all-white private school. For most of my early childhood, my white friends were just my friends, and while I understood the significance of ethnicity and race, it was something that mostly only concerned the adults. It wasn't until I moved to the south that race became an issue in my life. And it wasn't the discrimination of southern whites to a northern black kid, it was my new black friends who didn't think I was black enough because of the way I talked. My black classmates told me repeatedly that I was mixed race, half white, or in some other way questioned my legitimate claim to being as black as they were. Mind you, I am fairly light skinned, but in the final analysis it had nothing to do with the way I looked and everything to do with the way I sounded. In the end, it was because I had picked up the speaking patterns of my white classmates in Chicago that made people think I wasn't fully black. It had become a characteristic of my identity as much as skin color only it was something that I was able to change. I barely had a grasp on the English language when I then had to figure out the nuances of white and black English simultaneously. I learned code switching at a fairly young age and because of that I've found language to be one of my primary interests in life.
I know many people who have genuinely been insulted by something I've said that was in no way intended to hurt. And yet, I can't say that their defensive stance is unwanted because I don't fully know the context in which that stance was developed. Maybe it serves them well in their daily lives. Maybe it makes them feel more in control to sniff out the sly putdowns at every turn and to defend themselves against the crafty bitches who throw shade. For me, ignorance is bliss. I'm glad I don't recognize shade most of the time, and if you want to talk behind my back while in front of of my face, go ahead, I won't care, for the most part.
I have a friend who doesn’t like people using the word faggot around him. We'll sometimes play competitive games, and we both hear trash talk that often involves using the word. I am not like him. I'm not offended by the word at all. I’m not sure why it doesn’t offend me, maybe I should feel offended, and what does it say about me if I’m not? He thinks it makes me a self -hating gay, that deep down I don't accept the offensiveness of the word because I’m deeply in denial about that term referring to people like me. And maybe he's right. Maybe I deny the word any power over me because I don't think it refers to me at all. I cannot say the same about other offensive words.
George Carlin is one of my favorite comedians and authors. He has a famous comedy routine in which says aloud the words one cannot say on television. It's made more hilariously ironic that he is on television saying the words you cannot say on television. In his bit, he claims that words in and of themselves don't have the power but it's the content and the intent in which the words are spoken that matter. I agree with everything he said except for the word nigger. I felt something different when I heard that word as he listed a long line of racial slurs one cannot say in public, and I suspect that others might have felt a certain way when they heard racial slurs used to humiliate members of their respective groups as well.
I wanted to write about code switching, about how black people speak differently than whites, gays from straights, and the social implications of language because I think the idea that language in itself that is bad and language that is good shapes a lot of our social discourse. It's something that needs to be discussed openly because even if it's not a part of the conversation it will always be in the background. I’d rather be the guy who attempts to be too nice than the one who goes around pissing people off simply to make a point. If we lived in a world where people were a little too concerned about the feelings of other people, it would be preferable to a world in which everyone could care less about other's feelings. So if someone is offended by something you said even if you didn't intend to hurt them, try not to be frustrated. Try to be compassionate, apologize, and consider if what you said could have been said in a better way.
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