This is a cautionary tale I have been loathe to share because it’s detrimentally self-implicating, but — here goes:
When I was a freshman in high school, we had a visiting lecturer stop by my religion class. I cannot recall the specifics of her presentation, although I believe — devastatingly enough, as it will turn out — it centered upon the topics of diversity and inclusion. At some point in the Q+A, for reasons that are both unclear and unforgivable, I stated, without hesitation, that “my elementary school was kind of ghetto.”
I will never forget the look of shock and disgust on the lecturer’s face:
“Well, wait a minute now. Wait…a…minute, young lady. You can’t use that word.”
I blanched. I was mortified. I still feel the burn of humiliation and regret all these many years later, and I remember sitting there, anchored to my seat, hard-gulping and nearly vibrating with embarrassment, for the thirteen agonizing minutes until the bell rang. How could I have been so careless with my words? I glued my eyes to my hands as I loaded my belongings into my backpack, terrified that either the instructor or the lecturer would pull me aside after class for further admonishment, and then skulked out of the classroom with my tail between my legs. It was only after I’d escaped down the back stairwell to the safety of the far wall of The Commons, a byzantine network of lockers and gaggles of girls on the first floor of the main hall of my red brick high school, that I could take a deep breath. I stared blankly into the hollow of my locker and thought about the weight of the word I’d just used. Badly done, Emma.
I have spent hours and hours of my life thinking about this moment. In the days after, I would puzzle over why the hell I had used that word so flippantly. It was hard to conjure my interpretation of the word in its original context after my comeuppance, but I marveled, sickened, over how I had somehow overlooked its racial implications until the moment it left my lips in that classroom. My friends at my elementary school had used the word so freely, gesturing to the chipped wooden cubbies we used as lockers and the cracked asphalt we gathered on every morning and afternoon, and the crackly, intermittent intercom that had probably been around since 1973. But they also used it to describe other things: a classmate using a small white trash bag to transport his clothes to school, another wearing shoes two sizes to big because they’d been on sale and hadn’t had them in his size. I had conflated ghetto with cheap, or rundown, or — in some abstruse sense — the feeling of trying too hard, but I knew — even before the incident — that it was an edgy word, since my parents never used it, and my friends tended to smirk and gloat when saying it. It had the feel of a lazy curse word to me, but I’d never interrogated the matter further.
Now I knew.
Of course I had known that bad words and slang words had no place in a classroom, but, with a flash of apprehension, I discovered that other words could be issued in poor taste, too, and for reasons far more pernicious than a disregard for propriety. I began to think more critically about the composition of my elementary school: it had been remarkably diverse, and I’d not given adequate thought to what that meant until that moment. Because it had the lowest tuition of any Catholic school in the archdiocese and it sat on Massachusetts Avenue, just blocks from Embassy Row, my grade school classes were a mezcla of children from devoutly Catholic, low-income families and the sons and daughters of ambassadors from abroad. And then there was the Nurmi family — my family — which didn’t fit either category, but the school was conveniently proximal to our house and well-run by old-school nuns and a deeply frightening Monsignor who wore a flowing black cassock on his days off and scared the bejesus out of us, factors far more important to my reasonable parents than social standing. I have long respected them for sending me there: though they had the means to send us to far fancier grade schools, they were unconcerned with bumper stickers and the old who’s-who and pragmatically intent on a convenient, decent, very Catholic education for their five children. As a result, I had friends like Yara from Guinea-Bissau, Maria Cecilia from Chile, and Sam from Zimbabwe, for whom English was a second language and America was a second home. And I also had friends like Fabiola, Marco, and Dishaun, who all lived in parts of D.C. I’d never been to before and came from families less fortunate than mine. I knew this because they would joke about joining the Church choir. You could secure a special scholarship if you were accepted into the choir, and the fact was that the school never turned anyone down, and so — there was a long-standing ring of self-deprecating humor centered around the notion of being poor, being bad at singing, and joining the choir.
Indeed, in my thorough and repeated reviewings of my failing, it has always puzzled me that class distinctions were so legible to me while racial ones were not. I am not saying that I didn’t see race; to say that would be disingenuous, and in fact I distinctly remember that when I briefly “dated” (“dated” being a loose term, as I was in the sixth grade) a black boy, another classmate — also black — commented on my “jungle fever.” Those were his words, not mine, and their colonialist slant makes me itchy. Where had he picked up that phrase? Was his deployment of the phrase OK given his race? Did he even realize what he meant? And yet, I hadn’t been stunned or disgusted when he said them; his tone had been inviting, impressed even — and I was never, even in the face of such casual markers of racial divide, under the impression that I was breaking any rule or going against any norm in dating this boy. I was far more conscious of the fact that my family was better off than many other families than I was that I was white and most of my classmates were not. When I intimated to a friend that I might try out for choir, feeling excluded from their after-school camaraderie, she replied: “Better not. You might be using a spot someone else needs.” There was justice in her words, and also a very clear marking off: the class lines were impossible to miss. The racial ones were blurrier to me.
I am not looking for a way to curtsy out of my mistake; I am mining my memory in order to unpack the provenance of a racially-charged word I’d chosen to use. The fact is that I had strolled around with the word “ghetto” in my pocket after stealing it from my classmates and assumed it was OK for me to bandy it about, too — and it wasn’t. Of course there is a difference between intentionally deprecatory racial slurs and a misunderstood word, but casual propagation of misappropriated language is powerfully nefarious, and — I learned that day — I must take care with the ballast of my words.
These many years later, I remain repentant — the guilt I felt when I discovered I had offended someone through a flashy turn of phrase still reverberates. The experience has seriously shaped my perspective on the politics of language. Would you think less of me as a writer if I admitted that I always have one tab of my browser open to the dictionary? Because I do — I do so that I can cross-check when I trot out a word that feels off or of dubious origin or implication. It’s not always about politics, of course — I accrue a pocketful of new words (recent acquisitions include internecine and hubristic) every week in my reading, and I’m always eager to try them on for size myself — but I’m most leery when I’m deploying a word acquired via pop culture (“can I pull off thirsty?” I wonder aloud). It’s un-writerly, unnatural even — but I learned the hard way about the weight of words.
Just the other week, one of my dearest, smartest friends made the well-articulated point that you can’t say anything anymore without stepping on someone’s toes; he pondered whether we have sacrificed a degree of freedom of speech in today’s litigious, “PC” environment. And then, just a few days later, I was listening to my hero Roxane Gay on — improbably enough — an episode of “Bitch Sesh,” a podcast in which two comediennes break down and poke fun at episodes of The Real Housewives, and she stated that she believes that it was Gwyneth Paltrow that bit Beyonce. Have you been following the whole #whobitbey phenomenon? Essentially, an actress posted on Twitter that she had been at a party at which Beyonce was bit on the face — yes, bit on the face — by another celebrity. People have spun out all kinds of theories about who did it and why –and Roxane believes that it was the Goop queen herself. Why? As she put it here, “[Paltrow] just seems like the kind of woman who would overstep that boundary. I think that I think that because I saw her singing a Jay-Z-Kanye song once and she said the n-word while she was singing it, and I was like, “Girl. No. Not for you.” Which to me is the same kind of thing as biting Beyoncé, so I think she bit Beyoncé.”
And so there are these two contradictory thought currents coursing around me: on the one hand, I am an avid believer in freedom of speech, especially as a writer myself, and I’m inclined to agree with my friend’s well-observed comment. On the other, I am horrified by but not unsympathetic to Roxane’s conflation of verbal violence with physical violence. Horrified because I’m no better than Gwyneth given my ghetto comment, and sympathetic because I have always felt that old schoolyard rhyme to be unthinkably misleading; it should be: “Sticks and stones can break my bones / but words will always hurt more.”
Of course, these “tent poles” needn’t be mutually exclusive, and when I think about it, there’s almost an ethical imperative that they shouldn’t be: I can write well, and articulately, while practicing good hygiene in the exercise of language. (I use the word hygiene carefully here, too, as I don’t intend to say that my word choice is contrived or robotically bleached in editing, or that bigoted thoughts can be in some way sanitized through the topical application of spellcheck — but to underscore my belief that extreme care must be taken, and that, for many years now, I have operated under a primum non nocere oath to the vocation of writing.) So here we are, today — me, plucking and planting and preening my words and fretting over whether this entire post will be perceived as tone-deaf, and me, feeling as though my experience is nonetheless worth sharing and that I have the space to do it. And all because of the weight of words.
P.S. What words do you hate?
Post-Script: 10 Things Always at My Desk.
Aside from a browser open to the dictionary, these are always on hand when I’m in the mood to write:
+Carafe of water. (She so thirsty…see…I did it.)
+Inslee desktop calendar. I use this constantly. I didn’t realize how many times a day I would open my computer to look up “dateandtime.com” or my Google calendar in order to figure out the timing for something — this obviates the need.
+An infinity of post-its. Mr. Magpie was appalled to find nearly an entire moving box full of post-its when we moved to New York. I love them so much — they’re perfect for stowing bite-sized thoughts and reminders, and I tuck them onto the pages of my day planner and apply them to the mirror in front of me throughout the day. I prefer to write on them in sharpie — it’s an odd but satisfying habit.
+My day planner. I am extremely picky about planners — I’m 100% analog and must write my to-dos down against a calendar, so I need a planner that has enough space on a daily basis to accommodate my tick list and large enough pages so that I can slip receipts/invitations in between them. As I write this neurosis out, I realize I completely lifted my mom’s style: I now suddenly recall the smooth slide-and-click of my mother’s desk drawer as she’d open it and turn the pages of her own planner, the receiver of our home phone cradled between her ear and shoulder. “Let me just see…yes, the 24th? 10 am? I can do that.”
+My mirror. (And, sadly, the picture at the top of this post is not my actual desk. Sob.) We ran out of space to hang an oversized white wood mirror that had been in our guest room in Chicago and that I’d salvaged it from The Christ Child Opportunity Shop in D.C., where I paid a casual $40 for what should have retailed for several hundred. Since moving to New York, we’ve stowed it on my desk, propped up artfully against the wall. Every day, I sit in front of it and write, taking occasional breaks to glance at myself. It’s an odd place for a mirror, but the symbolism is not lost on me: sitting down to write this blog is a long look in the mirror in more ways than one.
+A pile of my jewelry. I almost always wear my watch (RealReal is a good spot to find gently-loved Hermes watches, too — I do not need another watch, but I love this one something fierce) and a gold bangle with the coordinates of Charlottesville, VA engraved into it (aka, the birthplace of the most important relationship in my life; you can get the look for less here), but I hate writing with them on — they clank and catch and jangle and make me feel inhibited. But I always wear my wedding band and engagement ring because…well…you know.
+Elizabeth Arden 8 Hour Cream. I am legitimately never anywhere without it — including at home. It’s like that thing they say about rats or cockroaches or — most likely — both in New York: you’re never more than five feet from one? But any Nurmi woman is never more than five feet from a tube of 8 Hour Cream.
+A candle, and I just bought this one — a new scent for me. I almost always stick with either Tocca or Fresh candles, but this caught my eye (nose?) at Blue Mercury the other day. I love the feeling of writing next to a lit candle.
+A hand-written list of blog topics and products I’ve been eyeing. I usually convert these into a digital list on Trello, but right now, they’re chilling on a piece of paper waiting for Tilly to tear into them, so I’ll share them here:
- A vintage jewelry set to nail the oversized flower trend in a more novel way;
- A retro-looking hand-stitched outfit for minimagpie this summer;
- A pair of wooden tongs so I can stop burning my fingertips every morning while retrieving my daily toast;
- A toast rack — can you tell I wrote these down after breakfast? Also, my mom had one of these and I always thought it ridiculously outmoded, like the “crumber” she forced us to use after dinner…but now I see the appeal and rather like the idea, especially since Mr. Magpie complains when his toast has sat on a plate for too long while he’s out walking Tilly — it gets soggy!
- A marble platter as a gift for a friend who enjoys entertaining;
- I NEED THIS SHIRT IN BLUE;
- Do I need this waste basket Y/N? (Yes.)