A couple of days ago, a friend invited me to join a group for military spouses against racism. I hesitated for about a day before I accepted the invite. It’s not that I’m against fighting racism. I do think it’s a serious problem and I am always open to learning new ways to be a better person. I like being in groups where resources are shared and people can discuss things openly and calmly. At first, it looked like that group might turn into something useful and good.
Nevertheless, I still hesitated joining. I was right to hesitate. In my experience, Facebook groups, especially those involving the U.S. military, tend to degrade very quickly. In the past, I have hung on in those types of groups for much longer than I should have, trying to take what was good and leaving the rest. But I am now at a point in my life at which I don’t want to waste any time on bullshit. While that group started out pretty well, this morning I could see that it was rapidly turning into a shitstorm. 2020 is one big shitstorm on its own. I don’t need any more thrown at me on social media.
In this case, the shitstorm was prompted when an admin posted that the word “picnic” is a derogatory, racist term. I was a bit perplexed by that revelation. I had never heard of “picnic” being offensive. It’s used a lot in Germany. It’s generally a term used to describe dining al fresco, often while sitting on a blanket with a basket full of food.
There’s even a play called Picnic, that I remember being performed at my college when I was a freshman. Longwood University, then called Longwood College, has a long history in the fight against racism. It’s located in the town of Farmville in Prince Edward County, Virginia, the location of one of the worst resistances of massive integration in U.S. history. Prince Edward County is also the location of a well-known fight for civil rights. From the link:
During the 20th century, Prince Edward was the center both of one of America’s worst episodes of massive resistance and one of the bravest moments of the Civil Rights struggle. In 1951, the student-led strike at Moton High School, organized by then-16 year old Barbara Johns, produced the majority of plaintiffs in Brown v. Board of Education. The public schools, however, were closed for five years beginning in 1959 rather than integrated. And yet it was here also, four decades later, that a majority of voters opted to make Douglas Wilder the first African-American to be elected governor in any state in all of American history – yes, that happened in Virginia.
I couldn’t imagine my racially conscious college putting on a play called Picnic if the word “picnic” is racist. I decided to look up the history of the word to find out if it was, in fact, derogatory. What I found out is that for the past twenty years or so, there’s been an urban legend going around the Internet claiming that “picnic” is a racist term. However, the story about “picnic” being offensive is false. The word was first used in France in the late 1600s. It was first used in English in 1748, and in those days, it had no racial connotations whatsoever.
So how did this rumor get started? Well, it seems that back in the days when lynchings were completely acceptable, some white people would have a picnic while they watched. It was entertaining for them to watch black people being lynched. They’d eat, drink, and be merry. At some point, the word was supposedly bastardized to mean “pic-a-nig”, or so I learned as I read that thread, which eventually swelled to over 250 comments before I finally decided to leave the group. Because some people “picnicked” while lynching people, somehow there were people who felt that the term “picnic” should always refer to the practice of white people having an outdoor gathering involving food while watching black people being murdered in the most horrifying ways.
Some people correctly pointed out that the word “picnic” isn’t a racist term. They provided the usual links to proof– and the links were good ones, from legitimate academic sources, as well as popular and reputable sites like Snopes.com and Politifact. But the person who started the thread soon became very agitated and, though she was an “admin” for the group, sank into name calling. She repeatedly called one articulate poster a “Karen” (and if you read this blog, you probably already know how I feel about that) and accused her of being “passive aggressive”, a term which I have a feeling she can’t accurately define. I watched her escalate the situation more and more with some concern. Other posters were calling her out for being immature, but she insisted that she was just calling people out for being “racially insensitive” because people were refusing to agree with her that the word “picnic” is triggering and they didn’t want one more word to be considered “bad” due to racism. It seems like people who are against racism would want to see fewer offensive words rather than more words– but here they were, arguing over whether an innocuous word should be deemed “offensive” due to what some people did during lynchings.
If you are a regular reader of this blog, you might also know how I feel about burying language and symbols. I understand why people think it’s the right thing to do. It’s certainly easier to ban words and symbols than it is to reclaim them and encourage people to change their attitudes and enlighten themselves. However, it’s been my experience that when people ban words and symbols, new ones tend to crop up. Moreover, by banning a so-called “offensive” word, you still haven’t dealt with the negative attitude that led up to its creation. It’s more like an “out of sight, out of mind” solution that only hides the problem instead of fixing it.
On my original blog, I once wrote a post about an argument I got into with a guy who insisted to me that it’s offensive to use a word like “niggardly” when describing one’s money habits. Niggardly, by the way, is NOT at all a racist term. It has nothing to do with racism, doesn’t have the same etymology as the racist term “nigger”, nor is it even spelled like the racist epithet. The guy who was arguing with me is a teacher, and he has a habit of being very overbearing with his views. I don’t like overbearing people, probably due to my own personality quirks. His “style” was not making me want to change my opinions, yet he kept hammering away at me, insisting that people have the right to be offended by the word “niggardly” because it sounds like a racist epithet. And rather than encouraging people to educate themselves so they won’t be offended when no offense is intended, he thinks we all should just quit using that word. I didn’t appreciate his heavy handed approach. I found it disrespectful and disdainful. It didn’t make me inclined to listen to or consider his viewpoint.
I will grant that there are other words that mean the same as niggardly does. We could all just say “stingy” or “miserly”. It basically means that a person is tight with their money, and there are other ways to say that without using a word that sounds so close to an insult. And frankly, if I were a teacher, I would absolutely encourage my students to choose a less controversial word simply because it’s better to avoid an unnecessary fight with someone who has a less developed vocabulary. However, I would also want them all to know that the word is not akin to the “n bomb”, and that if they see or hear it, they should not take offense if it’s being used properly. It’s not an insulting word, even if it does sound like a word that is very insulting.
I feel the same way about the term “picnic”. If you feel better calling an outdoor gathering involving food a barbecue or a cookout, by all means, call it by those terms. But I also want people to know that if the word “picnic” is considered racist by some people, it’s because it was wrongly hijacked. Its original meaning had nothing to do with racism. And I don’t think it’s right to give bad people the power to change language in that way. Why should we? It’s not the word that’s “bad”. It’s the asshole who is using language to be hurtful and demeaning that is “bad”. Words are neutral.
I didn’t like the way the admin, who by the time I left the group had been stripped of her admin powers, was insulting and berating people. I also noticed that she wasn’t the only one engaging in that behavior. The attacking and uncivilized behavior was distasteful to me, and some of it seemed like it would cause more problems than it solved. I felt my stress levels rise just reading everything and seeing all of the visuals… and I wasn’t even involved in 99% of what was being shared in there.
For instance, I noticed one member had posted screenshots of an American man who works in a German military town. The guy has responsibilities in a major military facility, but his personal views are on naked display. He used monkeys to make his point– the old “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” illustration, which commonly uses “three wise monkeys”, a concept that originated in Japan. Someone in the group determined that the mere use of monkeys was inherently racist and people were talking about trying to get him fired. While I personally disagreed with what I saw on his page, I also think there’s a fine line between calling out racism and ruining people’s lives by threatening their livelihoods.
There are real costs associated with call out culture and mob mentality. The aftereffects of publicly shaming people and making them infamous don’t always just affect the perpetrators; they also harm people associated with them, some of whom are completely innocent, and cause the problem to get worse. Imagine if the guy they were discussing so fervently has young children. These women go after this guy’s job by making an “ICE” complaint. The many complaints cause the man to lose his job, and his family eventually spirals into poverty that leads to other serious family issues like divorce or alcoholism. The young children grow up in that bad environment, and hear about how it happened. How do you think that might affect how they view military wives, particularly those of color? Will they be grateful that someone took a stand and made the guy pay for posting the three wise monkey emojis, even if what he wrote wasn’t particularly racist in nature? Or will they be angry that a group targeted their father and caused his life to go south, thereby causing their lives to go south, too?
I think most people respond better to kindness, reasonableness, and understanding than they do shaming, insulting, threatening, and attacking. I was hoping that group would be a place where people could have intelligent discussions without fear of being attacked or insulted. Unfortunately, I saw evidence that what was originally intended to be a place for sharing ideas and understanding had turned into the usual military wives Facebook group, with lots of people immediately adopting an adversarial tone rather than taking a moment to collect themselves and giving people the benefit of the doubt. And frankly, I’m just too old, crotchety, and impatient for those kinds of groups anymore. So I will continue to do my best to educate myself outside of that group. It’s probably better for my mental health. Maybe I am a “Karen” after all.