Sticks and stones can break my bones,
but words can never harm me.
I have never felt comfortable with this one. I wonder if I am overly sensitive, but I have been hurt by the words of others and I have seen my words hurt people. In South Africa we have words that are illegal. Words that are seen as so hurtful that legislation prohibits their use. And yet we throw words around with very little regard for where they may land or the effects they may have.
When I was a young girl growing up in a segregated South African suburbia the sight of a black child was a rarity. The opportunity to interact, not to mention play, was virtually non-existent. Burned forever in my memory is my one occasion as a child to play with someone my age of colour. It did not go well. For some reason there was a black family living next door to my aunt and uncle for a while. Their daughter was a great novelty for me and I was allowed to play with her whenever we visited (which was considered quite liberal for a Transvaal suburb in the 80s). For a while.
I have been referred to as a 'terror' most of my life, as a child I thought it was an affectionate term similar to tyke (another frequently used label). One afternoon while running around the garden playing some raucous game I yelled out "Stop you little terrorist!" The reaction was immediate, parents descended from all sides. We were immediately separated. I was in no doubt that I had done something terrible and was forbidden to play with my friend from that day on.
It was only years later when I was old enough to be aware of apartheid, bomb threats and The Struggle that I realised where my transgression lay.
Having a love affair with words and literature I have always been very conscious of the language and words I use. But even so, occasionally an unintentional nasty will slip in. A byproduct, I think, of being raised in a society where bigotry and racism were condoned and even encouraged and interracial socialising was discouraged and at some levels illegal. Now that we are all free, although some more equal than others, I find myself having to unlearn a number of expressions from my childhood that I never suspected could be offensive.
This week it was the phrase "God bless your cotton picking socks"
It was used in all innocence as an honest blessing on someone who had gone above and beyond to help me. Only once the words had crystallised in the air and I sensed a similar unspoken response to that of my terrorist comment did I examine this expression more closely. The origins of this phrase and their implications only dawned on me as I did the intellectual equivalent of exploring a sore tooth with one's tongue. In South Africa we don't have cotton plantations, that fortunately is the guilt trip of another nation, so the dots took a while to join. But who were the cotton pickers? African slaves no? Therefore surely referring to an educated, empowered woman-of-colour's cotton picking socks could be hugely offensive?
As nothing was said at the time I am still debating whether an apology is called for. Was I the only person who noticed the faux pas? Will I just create further embarrassment by raising the issue? Or is openness, honesty and a good sense of humour the only way we will heal the social chasms in South Africa?
And so I once again pull my foot out of my mouth, wipe it off and continue to try to integrate myself in a society that, thank goodness, is so very different to the one in which I was raised.