Thursday, May 31, 2007

This is Not about Starr King

And I mean that.

More than a decade ago, when I was investigating seminaries at which to study to become a UU minister, I visited four of them (Starr King wasn't one of them simply because of personal preference. I've lived in California for far too long). And at one seminary, my tour guide told me about his rather weak financial aid package (he meant this as a warning to me). As part of my response, I used The Phrase That Shall Not Be Uttered.*

His response?

That's racist/sexist/homophobic/anti-semitic/anti-something or other (I'm not going to tell you which one, but it's in the comments).

Really? I said (blushing, by the way, and filling with shame).

Oh, yes, he said. We don't say that here.

Why? I said.

He had no explanation other than that the phrase was racist/sexist/homophobic/anti-semitic/anti-something.

And so I thought about The Phrase That Shall Not Be Uttered* a lot during my time at the seminary and became increasing less vocal about anything. I did survive private liberal arts education in the early 1990s though, during the height of what is termed "political correctness." I took an excellent course on language prejudice at Smith and participated in a lively discussion about "gyped" and gypsies at Wesleyan. So I thought I was sort of sensitive to issues of language. Apparently not.

I returned to the Indian** reservation on which I lived in New Mexico where I had lots of friends who belonged to the group I insulted, and asked them about the phrase over dinner one night, and they laughed uproariously.

I've since searched for documentation about language prejudice and The Phrase That Shall Not Be Uttered and haven't found anything. This doesn't mean I wasn't racist/sexist/homophobic/anti-semitic/anti-something or just an asshole, but here's the moral:

I didn't go to that seminary. In fact, I wanted nothing to do with that seminary. Rather than having any sort of informed dialogue or conversation about that phrase, it was simply off-limits and I was racist/sexist/homophobic/anti-semitic/anti-something. That, friends, is not helpful to anyone.

*You can figure it out. And, if you can't, it's in the comments.

**The Indians on the reservation referred to themselves as "Indians" not "Native Americans" or "American Indians," which they think are terms made up by white people. And since I taught at an Indian school, I respected their wish for what they wanted to be called.