Thursday, November 13, 2008

Lindsay Lohan Brings Colored Back: Politeness and The Power of Words

At first, I thought that the reason I reacted with such uncharacteristic annoyance to that story of Lindsay Lohan referring to an African-American politician as "colored," had to do with the lack of reaction I perceived on the part of other people.

Only TMZ seemed to have even noticed it, and all round the internets, the loyal brigade of sincere young girls who love "LiLo" seemed either unaware of it, or if they were aware of it, argued that their idol should be "given a pass" because she was probably just "out of touch" with the fact that it is not considered polite to refer to people as "colored." Hope is expressed that nobody will stoop so low as to suggest that she is a racist.

Now if we were talking about somebody who had just emerged from a lifetime spent in some isolated little Town That Time Forgot with little or no access to or interest in, media or the outside world in general, where the cutting edge of technology consists of the local diner's recent purchase of a microwave oven, and most people in the town have never heard of, just for an example, Lindsay Lohan, they might have an argument.

But we are talking about a girl whose entire life has been spent in Hollywood, who was processed through the Disney machine, complete with classes about How to Talk to the Press, and while I guess that you could argue that no one would have thought to mention, even as far back as those days of Lindsay's little girlhood, way back in the 1990s, that neither the "n-word" nor "colored" were good vocabulary choices when referring to people whose ancestors, or some of them, came from Africa.

The reason it is unlikely that such a thing would have come up is that it is not likely that anyone at Disney, which is, when it comes to grooming their little stars, pretty thorough, that it would be necessary to mention this particular fine point of conversational etiquette.

So, realizing that I leave myself open to charges of insensitivity to the very strong and very real feelings of her millions of very real fans, and without intending any disrespect for those feelings, Bzzzzzt! Wrong.

Lindsay said "colored" because that is the word she uses.

"But maybe it just slipped out."

Maybe it did, but things cannot "just slip out" if they are not there.

"You are saying she is a racist!"

I have no way of knowing whether she considers herself a racist. Whether she and I would agree on what constitutes being a racist is not, in my opinion, relevant.

"So you are saying she doesn't have the right to ---"

No. She has the right to use any words she wishes, and have any opinions, attitudes and beliefs that she has, and should anyone suggest otherwise, I would not hesitate to engage, and hard.

So what is it then?

That is what I have been obliged to ask myself, and in that process, because it is Lindsay Lohan, it has been impossible for me to fail to recall that this is the same young lady who not too long ago, passed an evening engaged in activities that had it been you, or I, would have resulted in charges of carjacking and hostage-taking, just for starters, but Lindsay "got a pass," and was charged with possessing cocaine.

"OK but you have to understand that she was under a lot of pressure, with her family problems, and her career, plus she was using drugs then, so..."

And the same could be said of many people who are currently serving double-digit, if not life, sentences for carjacking and hostage-taking.

I'll bet that almost every single one of those people was under a lot of pressure, with family problems, job and money problems, plus they were using drugs, so..."

So, while they rot in hellish prisons, Lindsay is free to go clubbing and party hearty and give interviews to Access Hollywood.

"Why do you hate Lindsay so much? Why do you want her to rot in a hellish prison?"

I don't. Hate is not something that has a place in my own personal emotional repertoire, and even if that were not the case, I don't know Lindsay, so how could I hate her?

Nor do I want anybody to rot in a hellish prison.

But I think that this is a road that no one would wish to go down, as it begs the question as to just why society "hates" all those people who committed carjackings and took hostages because they were under a lot of pressure and had problems and were using drugs so much that they want THEM to rot in prisons, not to mention why those prisons are hellish.

That is a whole nother show, a whole series, in fact, the one point that I am making here is that the "double standard" for the behavior of celebrities is such a deeply ingrained value, such a cherished belief, that it not only exists, but suggesting that it should not makes people angry.

"Um, OK, you lost me. You still haven't said why you are so angry at Lindsay."

That is because I am not angry with her. I may be, however, just a teensy bit angry with the power of words.

While many of my generation take serious umbrage at the "claiming" of the "n-word" that has taken place in recent years, as it has effortlessly found its way into everyday common usage by millions of African-American youth, not just in conversation, but in the lyrics to popular songs as well, I have occasioned my own share of outrage by taking no umbrage at all to speak of.

Frankly, it neither bothers me nor upsets me one bit to hear the word used by young people in casual conversation, nor in popular songs.

Used in its traditional way, however, and by people who do not identify themselves primarily according to their African heritage, I do find the term offensive, although at the same time, I acknowledge the right of those individuals who wish to use it to do so, and in fact, I appreciate it.

"Ew. Why would you appreciate somebody saying the n word?"

Because a racist who is upfront about it presents less of a danger to me than one who is not. Would you rather come across a rattlesnake, or a snake that looked just like one you could pick up and play with?

"Double EW! Snakes are totally gross!"

OK. Would you rather have someone leave a gun in your home that looked like a ball-point pen, or one that was obviously just a regular gun?

The power of words.

The last time anybody called me "colored," they were telling me I couldn't use the public restroom that had toilet tissue, sinks with running water, and paper towels. And it would have in fact been illegal for me to use that restroom, and illegal for that person to let me use it. We could have both ended up in a hellish prison.

The sign on the restroom that did not have any of those amenities did not say the "n-word." It said "colored," because "colored" back then, was the polite way to refer to people of color, specifically African-Americans, because in that time and in that place, most people were aware of only two different kinds of human being, white and black, or "colored."

The one question I do not have a good answer for is why the expression "people of color" is perfectly fine, and "colored" is not.

Why should two similar expressions be so different in meaning, in acceptability, politeness?

The power of words is the only thing I can come up with. I like words. I like putting them together and making sentences. Maybe that's it. Maybe I just want to be the one with the power over words, I don't want the words to have any power over me, so when something happens that demonstrates that I am no different from my contemporaries at whom I have rolled my eyes and pooh-poohed their outrage over their kids listening to songs whose lyrics include the "n-word," their daughters calling each other, and their friends "bitch" and "ho," it annoys me.

Turns out I am not immune to the power of words, after all.

"I'm confused, you said Lindsay was being polite, right?"

I am quite sure that that was her intention.

"OK, sorry. I thought you were trying to say, like, something bad about her. She really is always, like super-polite."

No comments:


A Celebration of Fine Trash TV © 2008. Design By: SkinCorner