It annoys me when Variety and The Hollywood Reporter refer to screenwriters as “Scribes.” The trade papers call directors “Helmers,” which is to say the captains of great vessels. They call actors “Stars,” glittering bodies in the firmament. But for writers they conjure up the image of a pale hunched-over weakling taking dictation. Costumers are called “Ragmen” and public relations reps “Flaks.” Someone is called the “Best Boy” but nobody knows what he does or even if he is a boy. He could be a girl. Every industry has its own jargon for identifying people by what they do. You can complain but it will do you no good.
More important for the outsider is to know what to call an individual who happens to be part of a group by virtue of his birth. If there is a consensus in the group, then those of us not in that group ought to call people who are in the group by the name they prefer, if someone can make it clear what that is.
It’s fair, for example, to describe someone as a homosexual but not a queer, though the word is common within the group: “We’re queer, we’re here, get used to it.” And just last week, it seems, Q took its place at the end of the line in the descriptive alphabet whip, LBGTQ. Queer is one of those words one may call himself but if you are not part of the group you must not use that word. Kind of like you-know-what. Back in 1955, however, when my generation was busy inventing rock ’n roll, homosexuals objected to the word queer, as well they might since the word always meant odd to freakish. So the Committee on Nomenclature unanimously voted to adopt the adjective “gay” to apply to all homosexual men, and why wouldn’t they, since “gay” conjures up happy people skipping off to some amusing activity. (Gay would later describe women too, though the ladies prefer “lesbian” and I don’t blame them, since that word has a reference to an exotic island seldom visited but once there rather enjoyed.) The historical pathway to “gay” took a switchback in the 19th Century. Back then “gay” was used to identify a prostitute, as well as the men who patronized her. Go figure. Whore houses were known as Gay Houses. (Note to self: What do prostitutes themselves prefer to be called? Whore, hooker, call girl, escort, VIP concierge, entertainer, sex worker, or prostitute?) Though also used as a noun now, sexually speaking, the adjective “gay” was once a verb as well, as in “gay it” which meant having sex with a prostitute. The term evolved by the 1930s to describe a man who had sex with other men, and in 1955 it became official because “homosexual” sounded too clinical, as if it were a disease, which indeed many people of the time believed it was.
The etymology makes school children drop their spinners and collapse into the giggles whenever they find in their readers sentences like, “When Reginald returned to the manor he had about him a queer look.” Or, “The evening turned out to be so gay that Priscilla wished it should never end.” Or, “Trevor awoke feeling a bit queer, but as the day wore on he was gay again.”
I have occasionally described my Exotic Wife as a “latina” and I have heard her call herself that. “Chicana” used to be acceptable, but that word was coined during the political turmoils of the 1960s, by latinos who wanted to set themselves apart as a political force. Too many latinos did not want to identify with some of the chicanos’ radical ideas, and so the term has fallen out of use. “Hispanic” is widely used, but strictly speaking it refers to someone whose heritage is of a Spanish speaking country, and that covers a wide range of cultures and races. “Mexican-American” is fine, if the person really is a Mexican-American. He might be a Guatemalan-American.
Looking to the East, please note that “Oriental” is severely out, even though the word has never been shouted in anger or spoken out of hatred. It’s hard to see how it became an insult, unless it’s because the word referred to Eastern Asia and most folks are from the rest of Asia and don’t want to be lumped in with that other crowd. Those who insist on using the word say it refers to anything or anyone Asian, or maybe only Chinese. In any case, it’s not accurate in identifying a race or ethnic culture. So let’s not use that word unless we’re referring to a rug. Our last normal President directed that it should not be used in official government documents. (The radical State of Washington beat him to it.) “Asian,” it is. Asia, however, is a big hunk of the world and I’m not sure that everyone born in Asia fits the description, as we are supposed to understand it. Ah, diversity.
As for my lot, I’m okay with caucasian or “white folks” or even European-American. But no black girl ever said, “You know the dude, works at the loading dock. European-American dude.” Most of us will not take offense even at “Honky” or “Cracker.” Having always been advantaged in America we can afford to be gracious in accepting whatever anyone else wants to call us. Still, “White Devil” makes me a tad uncomfortable.
Now comes what this is all about. I have been around long enough to hear all the early slurs used freely to label a Negro, which itself is a word no longer in use, though once it was a term acceptable to everyone, including Martin Luther King. Those slurs were mean and hateful and I’m glad that only a small basket of deplorables never got the memo, or could read it if they did. (It is wishful thinking to say the basket is small.) “Colored people” was once acceptable. (See the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.) And who doesn’t love Lou Reed’s riff, “And the colored girls go, doo do do do doo do do do doo…” Now it’s “People of color.” Okay, I’ll go along with that, with the understanding that it includes everybody who isn’t white. (Including my E.W. who is cinnamon, a skin tone celebrated in a great old song in the always understated ranchero style: “Ojos negros, piel canela/ que me llehan a desesperar,” which translates to, “Black eyes, cinnamon skin/ that drive me to desperation.” I could have written that.)
Out of the social upheavals of the 1960s came the demand that a whole race of people would henceforth be called “Blacks.” (Most of all this changing of labels came out of the 60s. I was there. You could hardly keep up.) I remember at the time being happy to have it settled, once and for all, even though not all Blacks were black. But I signed on and was comfortable saying something like, “You know who I mean, tall black dude, plays the alto sax.”
Then out of the blue another shift occurred and the powers that were decided “Black” was out and it should be “African-American.” People ought to be called what they want to be called, let me repeat, and I honor that, but this one doesn’t make sense to me. A lot of African-Americans would have to go back centuries to find any connection to Africa and by that time I’m a member of the tribe myself. So are we all. And what do you call an Ethiopian dude from Paris teaching American literature at Brown University? I make it easy on myself and go with “Black.” No one has taken offense yet, but the whole thing is a minefield. Let me apologize now and get it over with.
I know that writing about this in a less than academic way runs the risk of my being called racist, probably by honkies. What does someone desire when he calls someone else a racist? That the offender will retreat into some heavy introspection maybe. I’ve already done that. Should I say something stupid out of ignorance, I hope that the transgression be measured against my firmly held belief that nothing I have in life should ever be denied to anyone else because of a different heritage. You got a problem with that?
Which brings me to a story, one I have mined before in fiction, but here I tell the true story, and it’s instructive.
When I arrived in Los Angeles in 1965, a few months after my discharge for the Navy, I moved in with my friend Manzo who had a room in a Washington Boulevard boarding house. I was the only white resident. I took the civil service exam and became a social worker. Three weeks later the Watts riots broke out.
My boss and most of my colleagues were black women, and even though the streets were hot with racial tension we social workers were at ease with each other. We sat at desks in orderly rows in a huge hall, fielding calls, dictating notes, or hanging out until taking to the field for an interview with an applicant. I sat across the aisle from Rhonda, a pleasant, outgoing black woman around my age. I didn’t know her well but she seemed always of good humor. One day I told her my story and asked her how she became a social worker. Rhonda told me she used to be a transcriber, one of a legion of women who would take our dictation tapes and type them out for our case folders. Ambitious, she took night classes at Cal State and eventually got her degree. She came back to the same building where she used to work as a transcriber, but this time as a professional, a social worker.
I congratulated her on her hard work and determination and said, “You know what we used to call you people in the Navy?”
She stiffened and gave me an icy stare. Her attitude changed completely.
“You people?” she said, a hard edge to her voice.
I knew I’d stepped on a mine. Since I couldn’t see it I had no way of avoiding it.
“Yeah,” I said, “people who work their way through the enlisted ranks and become officers. We called them Mustangs. So in the Navy you’d be a Mustang.”
The ice melted and the warmth returned. She gave me an indulgent smile.
I told Manzo about my exchange with Rhonda and that it confused me. He told me never to say “you people” to a black person. He couldn’t say exactly why. It was some kind of collective hurtful memory of the soul.
The next day I went face to face with Rhonda and implored her to say something to me using that same offensive term. I wanted to give her the chance to get even but more than that I wanted to know what it felt like.
She thought about it for a moment then said, “You people don’t know how to make a good time out of nothing.” I felt belittled. I wasn’t one of a people who didn’t know how to have a good time out of nothing. Was I? She laughed and gave me a hug and told me to snap out of it.
POSTSCRIPT: Currently a new word has become controversial when used in reference to a black person. It is a dog whistle, they say, only those tuned into perceived differences in the races can hear it and know its intent. The word is “articulate.” At the beginning of the controversy I thought, c’mon, “articulate” is a compliment in any context. Then I heard a black journalist say that he polled every black person he knew and they all agreed that “articulate” ticks them off. It’s a passive-aggressive way of telling a single individual that he is a credit to his race. I had no idea. It didn’t change my belief that “articulate” was one more explosive device that needn’t be planted. Chill, bro. Take the compliment and move on. I was interested enough, however, to delve deep into my own memory to find when and how I might have used that word in the past. I remembered only one incident, and I wasn’t the one talking. I was in the office of a publicist I had for a book in 1975, listening to him speak on the phone. He was trying to set up interviews for me with the media. I heard him say, “You’ll get a good interview. Ponicsán is good-looking and he’s articulate.” At the time I thought, yeah, I know that, but it was nice hearing someone else say it. Now all these years later I understand what he was saying. “For a scribe…”
(From “I Feel Bad About My Dick: Lamentations of Masculine Vanity and Lists of Startling Pertinence” – a non-fiction book that might prove unpublishable due to what I’m told is a controversial title. Oh, well.)