I am about to begin my third two-year term serving on the board of directors for Tampa Bay’s wonderful community radio station, WMNF. One of the many things I have gained from this service is a keener sense of how inherently racist I am, a revelation that came as a shock to knee-jerk, bleeding-heart me. WMNF is “committed to equality, peace, and economic justice,” as am I. WMNF “celebrates cultural diversity,” as do I. I attended a desegregated church from childhood until I moved away from home. My public school was desegregated in third grade. The most important person in my formative years, outside of my immediate family, was an African American woman whom I considered — and called — my “other mother” for the first fifty years of my life. Racist? Moi?
The entire country was forced to address the issue throughout the presidency of Barack Obama. My blood boiled when ugly slurs were tossed at the president who made me wildly proud, or his inspiring wife, or his beautiful daughters. It was easy to rest on my liberal laurels and know for certain that nothing in me matched the hate in them.
So my shock was more profound when I realized that although I harbored no hatred in my heart, I most definitely had assimilated a perception of otherness. The light came on for me at the tail end of a deadly dull Board/Staff retreat for the radio station. A required segment on diversity led to a surprisingly lively discussion. One of the attendees, an African American gay man, pounded the table to make his point: “I don’t want you to say, ‘I don’t see color.’ I want you to see my color, to acknowledge we are not just alike!”
I had to work to keep my jaw from dropping. My parents always preached there was no difference between black and white people. And of course, they were right. But so was my radio station friend: we are equal but we are not the same. There is no way for me, a white heterosexual woman, to comprehend the daily challenges faced by a black man or woman, or to understand what it feels like to walk through life loving only people of the same gender. From a shifted perspective, to say there is no difference between us seems an insulting dismissal of reality.
This made me become acutely aware of the idioms, jokes, and casual asides I had never thought to question. I now worried if an expression might be unintentionally hurtful; once I began to inventory, I found a lot of fodder. Just the other day, in a snit of frustration, I bit back the phrase on my tongue: “wait a cotton-pickin’ minute!”
Woah. New Ear was horrified. I had never, ever, considered the etymology of this phrase. It was something I heard often in childhood, usually expressed with respect to annoyance with time (the minute part) but sometimes in reference to fingers (“Keep your cotton-pickin’ fingers out of the icing, Laura!”). “Cotton-pickin'” was just a quaint southern euphemism for whatever ^%#* meant, which was something a good Presbyterian would never utter, right?
Um, no. New Ear cannot begin to justify this expression and New Ear is extremely glad that usually, Old Ear isn’t able to blurt these things out without stopping to check for unintended baggage. But sometimes, New needs a minute to catch up and Old is the first to fire. Not an excuse, but perhaps an explanation. One I hope is never needed.
It’s in there, as the ad slogan for a processed spaghetti sauce once promised. It’s just surprisingly hard sometimes to suss out all the ingredients. And just because it’s in there, doesn’t mean it needs to stay.