Finding the Right Steps in the White Guy Linguistic Jig

By Jason Menard

I’m all in favour of using appropriate language. I also strongly believe that the words we choose can harm – and that we should never be careless with our speech. Unfortunately, I hate the White Guy Linguistic Jig that it can sometimes create.

It’s not restricted to white guys, of course. But we’re just so darn good at it!

It’s that verbal dance we go through when the brain is rapidly trying to figure out what to say while our mouths are mid-way through the sentence. And it’s generally related to matters of race.

I’d like to believe most people aren’t racist. Maybe that’s unrealistic, but I would hope the majority of us are past the point where we judge each other based upon the colour of our skin. But our culture has become so hyper-sensitised to sniffing out even the hint of discriminatory belief that we often find ourselves caught trying to avoid me being labelled as something we’re not.

For someone who is not racist, the idea that you could be branded as such because of the choice of a wrong word is terrifying. So we hem, we haw, and we stumble through the White Guy Linguistic Jig.

And, like any dance, the steps change. We do our best to figure out what’s right, usually with no frame of reference to go by. Recently, I was reading an article written by a Native Canadian writer that threw me for a bit of a loop. So, I decided instead of fumbling through the steps, I thought I’d seek out a teach to help me navigate this linguistic dance floor.

The word in question? Indian. As a White Guy, I’ve never liked this term. To me, it represents everything that’s wrong with our European colonialism and its underlying arrogance. After all, those guys were looking for a passage to the India, found land, found people – so they must be Indians.

I’d much rather Native Canadians or – better yet – the person’s particular affiliation like Cree, Mi’kmaq, or Mohawk. I have heard compelling arguments for terms like Indigenous and Aboriginal (beyond the existence of the official Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada department). Indian? Beyond what I think of the word, I thought it went the way of the dodo in polite company.

But here it is, used in a quote from a Web site called Indian Country. As a person who loves words, my belief is that it’s the least I can do to use the right one! So what am I supposed to do?

After all, I thought we had settled this. And by “we” I’m referring to White Guys Trying Not to Say the Wrong Thing! We pretty much got rid of Eskimo – except when it comes to the Canadian Football League. We can all feel good about ourselves, right, now that we’ve embraced Inuit. Except Inuit isn’t right in all situations. It doesn’t describe Yupik and Inupiat peoples. And if you don’t think it’s a big deal, ask most Canadians how they feel about being miscast as Americans. Close enough simply isn’t.

Fortunately, there are people out there like Naomi, a Three Fires native, who has tackled this subject. Naomi was kind enough to read my post before it went live — and pointed out two terms I used that had the potential to cause offense. The words were absolutely innocent and casual, but framed the wrong way, they could have completely negated the point I’m trying to make.

I’m not an advocate of political correctness, but I do advocate taking care of what you say. It really doesn’t take much time to research and, when it comes to issues of race, sex, religion, and belief, I do believe we should be sensitive towards others. For example, I don’t particularly like the term “African” used as an identifying adjective because we’re all essentially descendants of Africa. Personally, black and white works well for me.

But you know what? It doesn’t matter what I think.

I’m a youngish White Male. I’m not Jewish, I’m not Irish, I’m not any culture that’s been the focus of either jokes or persecution. I’m part English, part French. So I’m pretty good with whatever you call me (white, Caucasian, European-descended) as long as it’s not an insult (honky, cracker, etc.)

And if there are people out there don’t like to be called black, then I don’t get to say otherwise. If they want to self-identify themselves as African, then that’s their choice. If someone wants to refer to themselves with the n-word and are willing to accept all the negatives and stereotypes that come with it, who am I to criticize? Which brings us back to Native Canadians.

As I explained above, White Guy Jay doesn’t like the word Indian. But who cares what White Guy Jay thinks? If people in that community have embraced the term and are comfortable with it, then I should respect those wishes. And if a term is offensive to those in that community, it would be downright rude of me to continue using it — especially if I know better.

In the end, we don’t need to devolve into a politically correct pool of blandness. That said, the least we can do is take a few minutes to learn what our words truly mean — not just to ourselves, but to those about whom we’re referring.

It’s the least we can do — and it has the potential to add so much meaning to the words we use.

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One thought on “Finding the Right Steps in the White Guy Linguistic Jig

  1. Pam Ralston Hunt

    Thanks for the thoughtful post, Jay. You’ve clearly taken the time to think through something many of us struggle with. I always hate that awkward moment when I trip, too, not knowing whether I’ve chosen the right term. It’s challenging helping our teenagers navigate this, too.

    Reply

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