it’s just words – or is it?

So much of today’s political climate is just nasty – and that’s talking about nearly everyone. It’s bad enough when walking through such a minefield, but when you have direct experience in some things and not so direct experience (like a hubby, son or close friend), the words one chooses to use mean something. Mine do.

So is it just words? No, says this writer, linguist and former English teacher. Your choice of words comes with connotations – not just what something means to you today – but sometimes words have history and meaning that makes some things a no go area.

This post is much about Charlottesville as anything. I was there. I was home telling my young friends not to go downtown. My tenant explained to me why she was going and I understood but her decision could have been the wrong one – as one young woman found out the hard way.

I knew too much going in – I remembered how the Kent State shootings turned my world upside down. I was not yet 19, in college and a hippie. I had demonstrated in anti-war protests and to have people like me dying in doing just what I had already done was life changing. Complicating the situation further, my first cousin was attending Kent State. I was scared then and was scared before the rally two years ago.

Charlottesville Unite the Right Lessons

I was traumatized after Heather died. Most folks I knew were also traumatized. Charlottesville was traumatized. I went into counseling because that’s my “go to” when the world seems wrong. (I also try to process before speaking out.)

Two years later the trauma has faded, thank heavens. And I now feel able to speak out with some objectivity (notice I did not say completely objectively). Besides Heather’s murder, I also was shocked by what my friends and acquaintances were saying in response. I was shocked by the physical reactions of some who took their anger out on the city council. I was totally dismayed that the town simply quit functioning in many ways. I had loved Charlottesville til then. I am thrilled to not live there now.

The whole stupid thing was about the statues. Now, I am a southerner but I was kinda surprised to see that large (but gorgeous) statue of Robert E. Lee and Traveler when I first saw it. I am a Georgian and not a Virginian so there was history I wasn’t in tune with there, I grant you. I’m not going to go into the details of how this all came about except to say a teenager – who did not live in the city – was the start of it all. The whole thing was not handled properly with respect to her, the city council or some of the idiots who broke out the dang Confederate flag again.

I was against removing the two statues. Estimates ranged from $500,000 to a million and Charlottesville has no affordable housing. I thought it to be a poor use of the money and advocated for the idea of added historical context to both.

I was informed I was racist.

If I did not toe the line and advocate for the removal, I was a racist.

Interestingly enough, no one was interested in my reasoning, my motives – even my “best” friend from NJ who happens to be of African American descent assigned motivations to me, the senior southerner, without asking me a dang thing.

This is part of what is happening today on a larger scale in our society. Folks screaming racism at any deviance from the politically correct terminology. Angry people, who know wrong when they see it, then reach for the most recent popular (and the more acceptable politically correct) way to describe something.

This political correctness happens on all sides, all political parties, everywhere. And I’m tired of it. So let’s talk about words and their meanings.

What is racism?

“prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.”

Okay, what about bigotry?

“intolerance toward those who hold different opinions from oneself.”


“prejudice, stereotyping, or discrimination, typically against women, on the basis of sex ” Misogyny is not synonymous but getting there.

And ageism?

“prejudice or discrimination on the grounds of a person’s age.”

So racism? No, I’m not black.

But my son is Hispanic and I was married to a brown man for a decade back when that kind of thing was not tolerated so well. I also was a military wife during those years and I spent plenty of time with other folks of color. I have been glared out and told I “should be ashamed of myself” and worse.

No, I’m not black but my memories of growing up in white Georgia just simply were not good. I knew something was wrong. I was raised by an Irish-Polack Catholic New Jersey father and a forward thinking southern mother. My family did not use the “n” word. In fact I never had someone use it in a conversation with me until after my son was born. But I was scared. I knew that if I followed my natural inclination and made black friends or dated black that my physical safety was at risk. I remember that fear vividly. Fear for me, my friends (black and white) and family. But I buried it. After Charlottesville, the memories hit me full force.

If I remember being afraid, I can make a guess at what it must have been like for blacks back then. I certainly did not know that at the time but had plenty of proof later in life with black friends who refused to get out of a car at a convenience store (he was younger by several decades than I) and older ones who are still scared to stay at a hotel or motel. I do have “white privilege” in that I could and can still today choose what to do without having to worry about my race. I do understand that.

But look at those other terms: bigotry, sexism and ageism.

I am well experienced with bigotry.

I experienced a lot of bigotry growing up in Georgia as I was a progressive, thinking person who did not keep quiet. I was always a minority voice in Georgia, even up til I left in 2008. As a hippie, I experienced this numerous times because I and my husband and friends had long hair and granny glasses. One specific event in 1970 comes to mind. As we were heading out to begin our married life in our ancient car, one tire started going flat. We stopped at a little hole in the road in a small community. The guy started filling up the tire for us – then filled it and filled until it blew. That was not by accident. He and friends obviously thought that was funny.

I also was alerted to the fact that it was not just blacks who were the target. In 1974 I moved to Tacoma, Washington. Along the trip and then while there, I found the treatment of Indians and Asians to be just as bad as what the blacks experienced in the South.


I have quite a few tales about sexism. Let’s see…I’ve been told to my face that I would not even be interviewed for a job because I was a woman. I have experienced a more subtle version of that in technology. It can be really hard to get and keep a decent job in IT — because there are mostly men there. (more about prejudice in hiring processes in a later post).

And ageism?

Starting with the Charlottesville events, I have been told over and over again that my opinions don’t count cause I’m too old. I am seeing more and more folks saying my generation didn’t fix anything – that we failed – that all of us are conservative and just too old.

The icing on the cake: prejudice?

“preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience”
In other words all of the above.

So if you are going to talk about racism, I have a bit of advice.

Take care who you accuse. Take care in choosing your words.

First, obviously people can be perceived as racist based on their remarks or actions. That word is bandied around way too much, however. My first encounter was as the academic manager of a private technical school about 20 years ago. One of the classes I created and taught was about finding a job. I have a lot of experience in this area as a business owner, manager, writer and researcher. I said from my practical stance as a business owner that one should use “standard” English in a job interview. And yes, I was saying that the vernacular used by young people (and yes, black young people) is not appropriate in that situation and could hinder someone getting a job. Employers like well-spoken employees that can be understood by anyone especially in public facing jobs. (they don’t seem to care today when you call customer support.) Perhaps my students would have taken that better if I was not white. It did create quite a stir.

Then they called me racist in Charlottesville. Sorry, but I do not believe my race is superior. I am a practical person. I have a good idea of what it’s like to have darker skin. I have witnessed discrimination based on ethnicity when my own son was denied a job. And yes, that happened when I was in the room.

I have experienced prejudice, bigotry, sexism, and ageism. I’m tired of it. I don’t care who you are or where you are coming from, do not ascribe motives to me when you have never discussed said motives with me. Do not call me names. It does not matter where on the political spectrum you are, but I do see the worse offenders as those on the far ends of the spectrum in both directions.

So how does this apply in today’s political climate?

It’s all about name-calling, it’s all about not talking with the other side, it’s all about him and me and if you aren’t with me, then you are against. I don’t know if Trump is a racist – I’m sure he doesn’t think he is. I don’t know his motives (sure, I can guess). What I do know is that he is xenophobic. Proudly xenophobic.

Xenophobia is ” fear and hatred of strangers or foreigners or of anything that is strange or foreign “

Occasionally you’ll hear that said – not as often as racism – but there is no question Trump is xenophobic. I’ve seen this at work before in Georgia. I see it today here in Maine. It’s the one commonality encapsulated in Trump’s words, ” “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” You aren’t like us and shouldn’t be here because you are different. For some reason Trump and his followers are just really really really afraid of strangers and foreigners. I’m not going to dig into this any deeper. I don’t need to.

This article from the NY Times is most relevant. The historical roots of Trump’s comments have a long disgusting history in our country. He never made any attempt to disguise this, he has just shined a light on these feelings – telling folks it’s okay to be xenophobic and yes, there are quite a few of them in our country. I’ve met them. I’ve talked to them and no, they aren’t one kind of person and many don’t even see this as conflicting with how they actually live their lives.

Historically, it comes in waves.

In the 1600s, it was the religious dissidents.
In the late 1700s, it was the non-citizens.
In the 1840s and later, it was the Irish and the Catholics.
In the 1880s, it was the Chinese.
In WWWII, it was both the Germans and the Japanese. (Read George Takei’s words)
In the 1960/70s, it was the anti-war protestors.
In the 1990s , it was the Mexicans (brought into Georgia by the poultry industry to work) in Georgia. I met a guy who bragged about going to Mexico to recruit workers.
And today, read Rep. Ted Lieu’s words about being a naturalized citizen, raised in the US since the age of 3.

Today it seems to be a mishmash of all of the above – anyone not white or who was not born here (or your parents or your grandparents who were not born here).

This is just wrong, un-American, anti-American, nationalistic, xenophobic and does not represent our country. In the end it doesn’t really which words you use to describe it beyond it is just wrong. Choose your words carefully though ’cause this English teacher may quiz you on it!