Monday, October 20, 2008

Foot in mouth disease

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.

6 comments:

Alan said...

Words used unconsciously bubble out of our cultural paradigm, the stories/beliefs/memes that shape our every thought and behavior. You can't change thoughts and behaviors without exposing the paradigm. You can't change the paradigm with out consciously changing thoughts and behaviors. Talk about it. Inflict awareness on someone else.

Barbee' said...

By publishing this post, you have already begun the chain reaction of getting people to think about their words.

I did grow up in a southern state of the USA where we grew cotton on the farm. I will not go further into that and its meanings. But, I will comment on the expression you spoke to your friend. It is a very common expression 'back home', but there it is not 'socks' (I've never heard anyone say it with the word 'socks' in it.), the way I have always heard it said is with the word 'heart' instead of 'socks'. Interesting how the saying became changed when it traveled to a country so far away.

Also, it is probably heard here more frequently as "pea-pickin' heart" instead of cotton. I have picked cotton and peas. If someone said that expression to me, I would feel that it was an expression of affection. But, I am a Caucasian. The same words could have total different meaning to those of a different race.

Best to let some words and some expressions die, and seek other (better) words to express our feelings. I wonder how many generations will have to pass before those words quit automatically bubbling up to our lips. I know there is a huge difference between my parents and my grown children. I am thankful for that.

clairconnor said...

wow ,Pen

Earth Walker said...

I wanted to say "wow" but was beaten to it...

...and this from someone who only recently learned that less is often more. Your more is most certainly more!

Can we expect some more thenouchoph?

Earth Walker said...

That last word is "then" + the word verification word from Google, sorry about that...Words eh??

Sheria said...

Thanks for adding my blog to your follow list. I've been looking about a bit and I like what I read.

Your honesty in this post is refreshing. I've taken an instant liking to you. Honesty is a value that I treasure.

I don't know exactly what you should do, if anything, regarding your perceived faux pax. I can tell you that If I were the other person, and you were someone that I knew well, I wouldn't really give it another thought. If it still makes you uncomfortable, why not just ask the other person if it bothered her? I don't think that you need apologize because you didn't intentionally offend. That's just my two cents worth.