I need some help – with political correctness.
As a Starter, Here’s a Joke
A newly-qualified doctor from a highly privileged background sets up a practice in a poor area. An elderly, working-class female patient arrives and explains she has “problems with my…”. Embarrassment overcomes her and she leans forward. “Down there,” she whispers. He begins examining her feet.
Okay, not so funny, but it is clearly a joke about communication across different cultures. Here the differences are class, age or regional – and it is perfectly acceptable. Agreed? No-one objects to mocking a young, wealthy, probably white, male professional.
Insert into the doctor’s description the word Asian, or Mexican, or African. NOW, it’s a racist joke.
Why? It’s still a joke about cross-cultural communication…
The splendid and talented actor, Benedict Cumberpatch, was recently lambasted for using the term “coloured” (in British English spelling) when praising black actors. To my non-pc computer, the phrases “coloured people” and “people of colour” differ by one vowel, one consonant and an additional space. Nevertheless, one phrase is toxic, the other is currently acceptable.
Okay, so the toxic expression is never to be used except as a term of abuse. Got that.
In June 2015, Rachel Dolezal resigned as president of the Spokane NAACP. Those initials stand for National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Hold on a minute… I see a forbidden term in that name. Its website says,
“The mission of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is to ensure the political, educational, social, and economic equality of rights of all persons and to eliminate race-based discrimination.
We envision a society in which all individuals have equal rights without discrimination based on race.”
Admirable. I fully support those aims. But it includes a toxic term.
Wikipedia explains, “Its name, retained in accordance with tradition, uses the once common term colored people.”
So it IS acceptable to use the term… sometimes? The outrage expressed over Cumberpatch’s slip was – to me – baffling, especially when he and the NAACP had the same anti-discriminatory objectives. The meaning is in the intention, surely?
The Devil in the Words
In my lifetime, the word “gay” has changed its general meaning twice (see Dictionary.com for a full range of meanings). How can we know what terms are currently correct in this fluid situation of changing meanings and variable acceptability? And – as writers – what will be seen as objectionable in years to come?
How Times Change
The wildly popular 20th century UK childrens’ story teller Enid Blyton tried to instill contemporary moral values in her young readers. Times changed. Values changed. Among her failings was to call two of her characters Dick and Fanny, popular names in her day. She was lambasted in the 1960’s and beyond, and her books removed from childrens’ libraries and book stores, partly due to what those terrible words conjured-up in the minds of the adult activists. Reprints now name these characters Rick and Frannie.
The Writer’s Dilemma
My WIP, “Private Vices”, is a paranormal noir tale set in the 1950’s. I wanted to have musicians playing in a nightclub. Reluctant to use the descriptive terms prevalent at the time (but now offensive), unwilling to use anachronistic modern terms, and uncertain of what terms will be acceptable when the work is read in coming years, I regretfully fired the black musicians and replaced them with Mexicans.
Not “Mexican-Americans”, as that term was not in use then and these guys were straight from Tijuana. (Oops! I mean direct from Tijuana: I’d hate anyone to suspect any preference for heterosexual musicians.)
So, here’s a case where political correctness caused five talented and likeable guys to lose their jobs due to their colour. It broke my heart to let them go; I felt sorry for their dependent wives and children.
But at least I managed to recruit five other minority musicians to replace them. So that’s ok, yes?
Image courtesy of Boians Cho Joo Young at FreeDigitalPhotos.net