Letter to the Editor: Words Matter Regardless of Intention

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Deborah Gaines wrote a powerful piece on the significance of Secretary Clinton’s historic win in the Democratic primary. I was really into the piece until I got to the words “that uppity negro” in reference to President Obama.  Those three words jarred me.

At first I thought I was being sensitive. So I did a gut check, and the comments poured in from a diverse group sharing my concern.

In my eyes, in the sentence penned by Ms. Gaines, “As the first female presidential candidate, Hillary — like that uppity negro, Barack Obama — has upset one of the biggest apple carts in history”, the phrase “that uppity negro” adds little value, yet it offends on many levels.  “The first African-American presidential candidate,” would have worked just fine.  Try changing President Obama for another leader and drop in a derogatory or stereotypical phrase that has historically been used to knock down a group, and you will see how I felt when I read the words.

I am very confident that Ms. Gaines and the team at the Village Green care deeply about all individuals who are marginalized.

The bottom line is, however, words matter regardless of the intention. The words “that uppity negro” is offensive because it is designed to knock the educational and economic successes of a group to somehow make us feel like we are not welcomed to be a voice. As if that right to change or be part of a community can only be given to those who fit a stereotype. Yes, some have embraced the words “uppity negro” as a positive thing (another word for trailblazer), but many have not (I do not believe President Obama has). Some, like me, still associate the phrase as words to deflate a group.

Words are used to invoke a personal understanding in the recipient.  They can make you laugh, cry, bring back memories, and more.

Words also serve as a major tool in how we teach our children. For example, what message are we sending SOMA children as they deal with hateful behavior in our school system this past Spring, when “that uppity negro” is published in a major local news source as if it were everyday parlance.

If we embrace the powerful message of the rest of Ms. Gaines’s piece (as I urge you to) and the work of Secretary Clinton, then this village — the SOMA Village — needs to make sure hurtful language is stopped so our children learn how to use their words to support not divide.

It is not just the overall phrase that upsets me, it is also each of the three words:

“That” — a word used to call attention to one of group. That ball, that car, and in the case of Ms. Gaines’s piece, that person.  It is a word designed to isolate and single out.  I’ve been the “that” in many rooms. That woman, that brown person, that brown woman, that blue collar person. And I know I am not the only one who had to deal with being a “that” — I bet many Maplewood and South Orange residents have felt at one point like a “that” based on the diversity they bring to this world.

What is life like when marked as a “that” in those situations? You feel like an outsider. Like someone who does not belong. Like a person not worthy to be in the situation. People should not be referred to as “that.” As much as we champion what Secretary Clinton’s achievement means for future generations, we also need to demand welcoming rhetoric.

“Uppity” — a word used to describe people who are arrogant and snobby.

Uppity also has a deep tie to every part of America’s sick history of racism and the Jim Crow South.  NPR has good summary: https://www.npr.org/sections/visibleman/2008/09/how_bad_is_uppity.html.

Many diverse leaders, including President Obama, jumped in and pushed for incredible change. They beat the odds against them. The word uppity takes the wind from their sail, diminishes their work, and harms the positive message for future leaders. When uppity is used in this context, the word implies that these individuals stepped out of place in society. Imagine a 15-year old young diverse leader in SOMA checking out the Village Green and seeing the words “uppity” to describe the actions of our President. It would make the teen question if their leadership will be valued. I recognize that some have tried to reclaim “uppity” as a positive attribute (standing up), but as we see from our own schools to national platforms, the hurt from words first uttered centuries ago to bring fear and hate still ring those feeling today.

“Negro” — While some people to this day self-identify as negro, a very large majority do not. I get the strategic use of words to evoke emotion, but for some words, we as a society have decided to pack away not to be used again. Negro is one of those words. Although the movement for racial equality continues, the word Negro went away many decades ago. The term stings much like the confederate flag. When you hear it, it makes you think of people who were shackled and sold as property, posters looking for people running for freedom, and a time when many were horribly treated as far less than equal.

Maplewood and South Orange are amazing towns because we work to be the example of what we want to see in the world.

On behalf of all those who ever felt like a “that” in a room, all those who were called “uppity” as a reminder that power was to be held by a few, and all those who are working to change the world from the when “negro” was regularly used, I am submitting this letter in hope that going forward we can all be better and be more thoughtful with our words and actions.

A big thank you to Mary and Carolyn of the Village Green for their thoughtful exchange with me when I shared my concerns. And a tremendous word of thanks to Ms. Gaines for your words about why Secretary Clinton’s win is a win for each of us. It certainly is a key win to keep us all motivated to help every future leader thrive.

Erin Scherzer

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