Monday, April 22, 2013

What can I takeaway from this?

The other day someone was complaining that she had received a private message advising her to change some wording in a blog-post, because it is a racially-charged epithet. She came onto a message board to whinge about this, because she couldn't see the potential offensiveness and was convinced it is an ok word to use. That word is 'chinky' and she was using it in the context of going to get take-away.

This sort of thing has always confused me, in that I couldn't see why it is so bloody important to someone to cry 'political correctness gorn mad' and be reluctant about changing the language they use, in the face of potentially upsetting people for no reason. I mean, is it really so hard to say "we went to get Chinese food" or "we got takeaway" instead? Does it harm you or cost you in any real way to put someone else's feelings ahead of the way you habitually speak?

Reading (or rather listening to) Mistakes Were Made (But not by Me) recently has given me a bit more insight into this resistance, which has always seemed so ridiculous and inexplicable to me. I guess there is a cost involved: a cost of admitting you might be wrong or harming someone - and that doesn't fit with the way you view yourself. Assuming this blogger is not a proud out-and-out racist (and would never think of herself as such, but rather has been a fish in a sea of unquestioned white privilege) then being called on using a word that she has perhaps never connected up the dots to being a racist one, sends her into uncomfortable cognitive dissonance. There are two obvious routes out of this horrid feeling - deny it's a racist term and/or protest that the other person is over-sensitive - or admit fault & re-think the way she uses language.

The knee-jerk reaction is to get angry and defensive and go with the former, rather than do the latter. Thus: everyone in her town uses that word, even the owners of the take-away use it about their own shop, she's not a racist, she's been using that takeaway for thirty years and considers the owners friends. So how could it possibly be racist? It cannot be a racist word, because that would mean she's been (inadvertently) racist. And she's not a racist.

I'm inclined to doubt the level of 'friendship' there is between her and the owners - maybe she knows them to chat to in the shop or on the street, but does she really know them and socialise with them outside of buying takeaway? Maybe she does...

Even if the owners themselves are not upset by the word and use it themselves, it doesn't mean it's no longer racist. I mean think about it, would it be good for business or peaceful co-existence to call your customers on their (mostly unthinking, non-maliciously intended*) racism when the likelihood is it would simply arouse hostility? Could it be a case of picking your battles? Even if not, and the owners are genuinely unconcerned by the term and everybody in the town does think it's acceptable, outside of that social bubble, it can be used in a derogatory way - and, moreover, it can be avoided easily.

So change the wording: you're on a world stage when you're on the interwebz. Being wrong stings, but it seems to me fighting the rear-guard action of defensiveness and self-justification is harder work in the longer run.

* To be generous

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