Tuesday, July 24, 2007


So I was surfing through commenters' blogs on Hammer's blog and came upon an article linked from this site, which resulted in a day of sporadic giggling fits, much to the chagrin of my dear wife.

[While driving home from the grocery store, during one of the fits of laughter]

"Why do you keep laughing for no reason? You're really creeping me out."

"Hm, it's kinda hard to explain. I'm thinking about this article I read today that had something really ridiculous in it."

"What did it say?"

So I thought about it for a while, how to explain why a racial slur would make me break into hysterics every time I thought about it, without seeming like I myself was a kard karrying klansman.

The article I'm referring to is this one, about how porches are making a comeback and the subsequent social implications. I'll go ahead and post the last two paragraphs, which contained the zinger, emphasis mine:

As newcomers to Herndon last year, Joanna Wilbur says she and her husband, Chris, found that sitting outside was "a way to make friends and connect ourselves more with the people living on our cul-de-sac. After work, people would come up to the porch and introduce themselves, or we'd say hi to them as they walked down the street. One couple would bring their daughter over to play on the porch swing."

The porch sealed the deal for the couple -- she's a credit union retirement specialist, he's an Army translator -- because it strongly evoked her Midwestern childhood. "I was a big-time porch monkey in St. Louis. Everyone was outside on the stoop until long after the streetlights came on."

All Clerks 2 references aside, the last line of the last paragraph had me in stitches. Why? For a number of reasons, but mainly because I couldn't believe that a) someone would say something like that, and b) the editor at the Washington Post would allow something like that to be published. I've noticed that a lot of people these days are fond of saying 'I was the only white kid at my high school', as if it gives them some street cred or makes them hard, but not me. I grew up in public schools, mainly white, mainly military brats, far from the darty souff, but somehow, somehow, I managed to acquire the knowledge that porch monkey is indeed a racial epithet.

"Porch monkey? Why is that a racial slur?", my wife asked.

"Hm, I dunno, maybe because it's saying that black people are simian in appearance and intelligence, and that they refuse to do anything but sit on the porch due to laziness?" I guess I'd never really given much thought to the etymology, but that was the best I could do.

"Wow, that's pretty bad."

And it is. So I got the thinking about how that made it through the presses, and I came up with a couple possibilities:

  • Ignorance

    No, not the "I'm a racist cuz I'm ignorant" ignorance, but (again, Clerks 2 references aside) her not knowing that it's a racial slur. I've been familiar with this from a very early age, when I was watching a movie with my dad and everyone was throwing around the word "Chinaman", so I did too. "Don't say that, that's a bad word", said my dad, which I repeated to my grandmother when she was throwing it around one day. "Who says it's a bad word?" asked my grandmother. "Dad did", which elicited a predictable reaction from my grandmother who a) understood my dad is an area expert on China and b) thinks that area experts in general are lazy and stupid possessing no more knowledge than the last article she read about their particular area in National Geographic at the doctor's waiting room. "It's not a bad word", she replied patiently. "I think 'Chinamen' is a nice word. Chinamen. Yeah. Chinamen." ...Aaand I got to hear that word about 15 more times during the next 20 minutes. (As a side note, you can imagine how much this made me laugh a number of years later.)

    We get a lot of that around here in Japan, too.

    The biggest one around here is the word "Jap". Maybe it's just ingrained in my or something, and while I don't get all fired up when I hear it, it does rub me the wrong way. I suppose "gaijin" could be considered derogatory too, but like "Jap", I don't really bother correcting people who use it anymore. When I say "You know, that's kinda derogatory," they usually just give me the "nah-ah" business, and/or go ahead and, like my precious gramma, disagree with me and use it as much as they can around me because they know it irritates me.

    I suspect that the woman quoted had no idea that it was a "bad word", but most surprisingly, that the editor didn't know. I find it hard to believe that a professional wordsmith working for the WaPo, presumably (unlike me) with a strong background in journalism, would not know the expression. There may be another explanation though, namely:

  • ...zing!!!!

    While I personally wouldn't practice this form of humor using a racial slur, I can certainly appreciate it when I see it. Think of this as a joke (something meant to make someone laugh) that is a) time released and/or b) like shooting a gun into the air in a crowded city -- you probably won't hit someone, but if you do, they're gonna really feel it (though in the case of the joke they'll laugh really hard, not die). Humor like MST3K and Homestarrunner include a lot of these -- where the humor is incredibly esoteric and sometimes hits you a little while later, resulting in genuine lolz when you get it.

    Perhaps this is what Mrs Wilbur intended, intentionally launching a nuke-tipped probe through the WaPo's editing processes just to see if it could get through because, well, that'd just be funny now, wouldn't it? Regardless of whether or not it was intentional, which I'm pretty sure it wasn't (because when I showed people at work a few folks didn't get why it was so weird either), it reached me and had me utterly incapacitated for at least a good 15 minutes throughout the course of the day. So again, Mrs Wilbur whether your bigotry was a result of a malicious mind or just being a simpleton, on behalf of myself and all my friends I sent it to (who I knew would laugh for the same reasons, I thank you.
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    Blogger Hammer said...

    Okay, so I never saw that article until just now, and at present I too find myself incapacitated.

    I mean HOW did that slip through? Wow. Copyediting ain't what it used to be. A classic WaPo moment to be sure.

    Brings to mind the epithet montage in "Do the Right Thing."

    2:07 AM  
    Blogger cyberninja said...

    [clerks 2 reference]


    Don't worry, I'm taking it back.

    [/clerks 2 reference]

    And for the "Jap" thing, I wanted to put a quote from the captain of the USS Enterprise (aircraft carrier, not spaceship) from 1943 on my blog at one point, but then I chickened out because it had the word "Japs" in it.

    2:23 PM  
    Anonymous dridio said...

    I used to have a good friend who happens to be pasture at a luthern church, I don't go myself. Anyway I'm out with him one day lookin at boats, (he wants me there as he knows nothing about boats), he looks at me, this good preacher from minnesota and says, "Do you think I could jew em' down". Normally I'd of said nothing, but come on, he's a "man of god". So I ask him, "what did you say", the General responds (as this is what I call him), "Do you think I could jew him down". me again, "that doesn't sound like something a pasture should be saying what's wrong with you", the General, "it's just a saying....."
    I guess he picked it up through childhood, but honestly he didn't see the error even after I pointed it out and this is a reletively intelligent individual, a man who surely knows something of the jews. He simply never made the connection and looked at "jew" as if it were something like "joo".

    8:07 PM  
    Blogger Paul said...

    hammer -- yeah it still blows my mind too.

    cory -- its all about context, right? i cant really get mad at someone who fought the japanese for callin em that. it's just what they did back then...

    dridio -- that reminds me of "jip", which comes from gyp which comes from gypsy. my mom told me when she was in highschool, if a guy stole a girl from a guy it was said that he'd "jap'd" her. that one surprised me the most, because japanese guys dont so much steal girls as much as they cockblock like mofos...

    9:23 PM  
    Anonymous dridio said...

    On the other hand, what makes a word bad?
    (true story)
    In canada a handfull of years ago the decided that the phrase "high-school drop out" was too derogatory, to much of a putdown. Just like the word "retard", in which case we're to say "the mentally handicap". Well, in Canada's case they decided to change the phrase "high-school drop out" to something less degrading, so they chose, "early school leaver".
    Ok, so lets think about this. I dropped out, or, I left early. Perhaps droped out suggests failure, where left early suggests I simply left. Or maybe it's something more subtle; for example when a new word or phrase is introduced it takes time for people to sensitize and/or desensitize themsleves to it's conotation and context. For example at one point in time it would have been quite complementary for me to say "Paul, you have such a gay blogg."
    Finally, why is being a fucker a bad thing, because certainly I am. As a matter of fact if shes ready, I'm a fuckin' asshole too.

    1:59 AM  
    Blogger cyberninja said...

    Paul: But you can get upset with any blogger yahoo who decided to post a quote with an anti-Japanese slogan when when he did not fight in WW2. I didn't want to be that Blogger yahoo, even though in this case the quote primarily focused with how awesome the USS Enterprise (aircraft carrier) was and wasn't specifically focused toward the "Japs." (though you can't talk about how great your aircraft carrier was in WW2 if you can't tell everyone how many "Jap planes" it shot down/engaged)
    And actually, it wasn't even you I was worried about offending when I nixed the quote, it was my labmates at the time. I never even considered the fact that you'd care, even though, in retrospect, your blog is all about Japan. Thinking back, I realize I'm pretty dense.

    dridio: Don't worry, you'll always be a fuckin' asshole high-school dropout to me, you Canadian early school leaver you.

    4:26 AM  
    Blogger Paul said...

    i think jinxy threw out a king of the hill quote on a blog where he said "japs" and some girl flipped out, so he just told her that tojo took his grand dad's knees on iwo and she started apologizing. that was pretty funny.

    10:19 AM  
    Blogger Joelogon said...

    Like I'd said, the thing that gotten me was that it was the incongruity of it -- like a sucker punch.

    Re: Chinaman -- I don't worry about it too much, I just don't like the inconsistency. Like, who else gets the -man treatment? Englandman? Spainman? Swedenman? Germanyman? No. Jamaicamon on the outside. OK, fine, Particleman. That's it.

    7:31 AM  
    Anonymous Anonymous said...

    The reason, the porch monkey comment got through was beacuse it came from a black woman and the things we white people think as racist are not so for many African Americans. Its the same thing with the N word. Black folk use the term regularly...white folk not so much. Oh, how do I know? Im Chris her husband.

    9:33 AM  

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