One of my biggest fears as an author is saying something stupid on a radio or TV interview. Many hosts will edit podcasts and print interviews, but radio and TV are often unscripted. In one radio interview, the interviewer asked me where I got some of the grim ideas for my books. I responded, “I have always enjoyed black humor.”
A listener heard my comment and wrote me an email. Her request was simple — please stop using racist expressions like “black humor.”
When I got that email, my mind catapulted through several emotions. My first reaction was to feel shame. My second reaction was denial. But my last was the most insidious…confusion. When did the term “black humor” become racist?
The reason why my last reaction was inexcusable is that it is not enough to plead ignorance anymore. The days of being colorblind are over. And the onus is not on people of color to educate white people on the microaggressions they experience daily.
Microaggressions are interactions or conversations that communicate a bias toward historically marginalized groups. Some common examples of microaggressions are “Is that your real hair?” or “you are so articulate for a (insert racial bias).” Microaggressions can be intentional or unintentional. And despite the “micro” portion of the name, they can have considerable and lasting effects. They truly are death by a thousand cuts.
Many everyday idioms can also be felt as microaggressions by people of a different race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, or religion. Maybe not to all people. But too many. The following are some of the most common micro-aggressive expressions.
No comments from the peanut gallery
Today, the term “peanut gallery” refers to people giving unsolicited advice, but the expression has a far more offensive history. In the nineteenth century, vaudeville actors performed in a theater with seats assigned by social class. Many of these theaters discriminated against blacks by forcing them to sit in the cheapest seats — the upper balcony.
It was common for people in the upper balcony to show their displeasure for a performance by throwing a popular concession stand snack — peanuts. These hecklers became known as the peanut gallery. While some argue the peanut gallery was more of a classist term, good luck separating class and race.
The term uppity originated in a collection of nineteenth-century African American folktales known as Uncle Remus stories. Uncle Remus, the fictional black narrator, calls a stuck-up sparrow “uppity” after he tattles on Brer Fox. These folktales became a derogatory way to describe blacks who “didn’t know their place.”
Sold down the river
The phrase long synonymous with betrayal may seem innocuous until you know the origins of the literal betrayal. In the nineteenth century, slaves were commonly sold in Louisville, KY, and then transported down the Mississippi or Ohio rivers to the most southern cotton plantations. Those who suffered this plight (usually males) had to endure the most backbreaking labor picking cotton. There are even accounts of blacks committing suicide to avoid this fate.
Call a spade a spade
This idiom means to speak plainly, but you might want to hold your tongue when you remember its history. The phrase originated in ancient Greece but took on a more sinister meaning in the twentieth century.
In the late 1920s, a “spade” became a derogatory term for any black person. Soon, the more common expression “black as the ace of spades” became prevalent. Today, its viewed by many as a racial slur.
One hundred years ago, calling someone a moron was not just a cruel insult. It also could get you deported, sterilized, or sent to an insane asylum.
The term was coined in 1910 by the eugenicist, Henry H. Goddard. Like many eugenicists, Goddard proposed the human race could be advanced by selective breeding that eliminated the “feeble-minded” — people of color, the poor, and the disabled. Many eugenicists advanced white supremacy under the guise of this pseudoscience.
Astonishingly, it worked. More than half of US states passed laws that sterilized the so-called morons. These laws resulted in the forced sterilization of over 60,000 people.
This word used to refer to a violent criminal, but lately, it has become racially charged. Some have even argued that thug has become the new n-word. Part of the reason for the cultural shift might be because our current president has used it only to refer to black people. For example, he called white supremacists in a 2017 rally “very fine people” while the Black Lives Matter protesters were called “thugs.”
Language is always evolving, and some of these terms may someday lose their racial connotations. But currently, many people find them offensive.
The term black humor has been so ingrained in my lexicon that it has been hard to drop. I now replace it with the more appropriate “gallows humor.” You are probably going to make mistakes just like I did. And that’s ok. But being ignorant is not an excuse anymore. When you know better, you do better.