A non-tenured, African American Spanish language teacher in the New York Public Schools wasfiredfor using the word ‘negro’ in a class she was teaching. It seems that her students believed that she was using the term to denigrate them. The term once being used by Caucasians to describe African American individuals. It didn’t matter, to either the students or the supposedly more educated school administration that the term is the Spanish word for the color black and that the class was going over the terms for the various colors used in the Spanish language.
Similarly for these people there is also the use of the term ‘wetback‘ by John Steinbeck in his work, Sweet Thursday, where it is used to describe the human cargo that one of the characters is engaged in smuggling into the United States. The term also has the history of being used as the code name for an operation by American immigration officials in the 1950s to repatriate thousands of illegal(read the more politically-correct term undocumented today) immigrants and, sadly, many US-born or naturalized Latinos as well.
There are also times when certain words sound similar to other words which are offensive to modern ears, and, whether through ignorance of the meaning of these words or an overzealous attempt to be progressive and sensitive, people get into trouble for using them. A example of this is the firingof a city government official in Washington DC which has a large African American population for using the word ‘niggardly’ in a public statement. It didn’t matter that the word had nothing to do with the similarly sounding ‘N’ word nor that it was a perfectly valid use of the word in the context it was used.
In our daily communications with each other, we often use words or expressions which other people may not like. The one thing we cannot do is stop at the point of merely hearing the words. We need to look at the context they are used in. Too often in our hyper-politicized world when dealing with those whose views you may not like, it is too easy to focus more on the words used than the way they are used. The one thing we cannot do is fall prey to censorship of unpopular ideas, words, or thoughts. To quote that great fictional President Matthew Shepard(Michael Douglas in the film, The American President for you non-film buffs): “You want free speech? Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours. You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country can’t just be a flag; the symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest. Show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms. Then, you can stand up and sing about the ‘land of the free’.”