Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Let It Fade Away

But once you insert black people into the situation, [sociolinguist Renee] Blake says, it's important to be more tactful.
This Halloween: What Does It Mean To Call Something 'Spooky'?
The context of this is that during World War Two, the Tuskegee Airmen were referred to as the "Spookwaffe," (who coined the term is unknown) and from there, according to NPR's Code Switch, "became a recognizable — if second-tier — slur." Now I've heard of the use of "spook" as a term for a black person, and, to be honest, I'd thought that it had gone out of style even before WW2. Given the fact that "nigger" is still alive and kicking, I've never had anyone attempt to slur me with "spook."

But by the end of the article, it's fairly clear that there is an expectation that spook, and words derived from it, like spooky or spooked, shouldn't be used within earshot of a Black person. The author of the Code Switch article says that other synonyms for "frightened" are "more fun." My first response to this was "Seriously?" But for all that I've grown weary of the sensitivity and brittleness that is supposed to be a common component of modern Blackness and the experience of being born African-American, I get it.

And there's a bigger issue than the ability to find racism, or at least racial insensitivity, under every rock and my irritation with the habit. Why is there an attempt being made to reinforce the idea of "spook" as a second-rate pejorative? What does anyone gain from the idea that spook should be considered offensive to black people because of its short-lived career as a racial epithet? It's like "niggardly," which Ms. Blake also notes as a term that should be avoided "front of a group of young students in a classroom," and, presumably, in front of Black people. But niggardly is not derived from nigger - so why imply that it is by tiptoeing around it? Why reinforce an idea that we have no really use for?

The power that words have is not in the words themselves. If someone walks up to be and calls me a nigger with all of the hate and disdain that they can muster, I won't suffer heart failure or a broken bone. The power is in the way we teach people to use and respond to words. At worst, I'll be afraid that they intend to follow up those words with violent action. And maybe even fatal action. But it's the action that will objectively injure me. And the fear that the words and the actions are linked is something I was taught. Were a co-worker to walk up to me and say "What up, my nigger," it would be an entirely different story, even though the syllables are the same. Now, when I was younger, I used to be quite put out when people would call me nigger to my face - especially when those same people would piously declare that racism was dead. But I was put out because well-meaning people in my family taught me to be put out. And I eventually realized that it was the fact that I was put out by being called nigger that prompted many of the people around me who used it.

And in that, I don't see the point of freighting "spook" with some or all of the same meaning. Why teach people to be the slightest bit put out by it? Because for spook to have any portion of the same currency as nigger, we would have to teach people to use it, and respond to it, that way. I cannot see how anyone is better off that way. If someone refers to something as spooky in my presence and I've learned to feel disrespected enough that language policing them seems like a reasonable response, I don't see any gain - except that we're telling a group of people that their coining of "Spookwaffe" is still alive and powerful today. And that group of people is almost entirely dead. We'd also be giving people who want to slur in public a means of doing so that comes with the plausible deniability of the other definitions of spook. Yay?

Given this, the formerly racist uses of spook shouldn't be dredged up and paraded around. We're better off letting them lie. We have enough weaponized words as it is. Who will care that we passed up the opportunity to add this one to the pile, other than the very people who most often seek out words to use as weapons? It does nothing for me, as a Black person, to have another word that someone might use in an attempt to put me out, and it does nothing for people who aren't Black to have yet another word that they have to do mental math before speaking. And while one could make the point that English is what happens when languages develop hoarding tendencies, there are better ways of housecleaning than this.

If I sneak up behind you and say "boo," feel free to say that I spooked you. That's what the word was designed for. The use of the word as a pejorative, even a second tier one, had largely come and gone by the time I was born. Let it stay dead. It will require active effort to revive it, and there has to be a better use for that work.

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