18 November 2020

You Can't Say That


I seldom review books, but I'm making an exception today.  This little (and I do mean little) volume has nothing to do with crime or writing directly, but it has a lot to do with language.

Adam Smyer's new book is You Can Keep That To Yourself: A Comprehensive List of What Not to Say to Black People, for Well-Intentioned People of Pallor.  I'd describe it as a novelty book, meaning it's small enough to fit in your pocket and probably only takes an hour to read.  But you are likely to think about it for much longer.

It is written from the viewpoint of Daquan, "the black coworker you are referring to when you claim to have black friends."  Daquan lists a lot of words or phrases and explains why a white person should not say them to a person of color.

Take, for example, Conservative.  "Stop describing your Cousin Brett as a 'conservative' to us.  That's normalizing bullshit, and you can keep it to yourself.  Conservative is choosing bonds over stocks, or wearing pantyhose in the summer.  That's conservative.  Your Cousin Brett is a nazi."

As you can see the book is terse, pointed, and (to this Middle Class White boomer) vulgar.  It is also extremely funny.  

For me the words fall into three categories.

* Terms I know enough not to use, like Purple.  "It amazes us how often you still break out the old saw about not caring if someone is green or purple.  You realize, you are likening me to some nonexistent purple alien to show that you recognize my humanity.  You could try to keep that to yourself."

* Terms I know better but still use occasionally.  Articulate.  Ouch.

* Terms that were news to me.  Yowza!  That comes from minstrel shows?  I had no clue.

There is another word that Smyer objects to which I have given a lot of thought to: Dark. As in "Recently the show's humor has turned dark." I understand his complaint but what other word covers the same territory?  Grim?  Serious?  Morbid?  None really handle it.

I suspect I will get complaints about political correctness for writing this.  So be it.  I don't want words to be forbidden or people who use them to be "cancelled."  But people judge us, in part, on the words we use, so it is worth thinking about them.  Someone once asked the folksinger Fred Small if he was ever politically incorrect.  He replied: "Do you mean am I ever intentionally rude?"

The irony, of course,  is that a book whose avowed purpose is to stifle discussion is likely to spark many interesting conversations.


  1. I love it. And yes, Cousin Brett is a Nazi, and comparing blacks to purple aliens is rude as shit, especially since we all know that if the Martians show up, you're gonna run like a rabbit or try to shoot it. As for Yowza, I didn't realize that anyone was still using that word, but I live a circumscribed life right now. Sounds like a GREAT book.

  2. I've used "Yowza" ironically, but I'm pretty sure that the book mentions that ironic use of racist expressions is, well, racist. I'm whitely okay with carefully contextualized usage, as in
    It wasn't very long ago / That some folks walked with a hi-de-ho / And others walked around kind of low / Saying "Yowza" and "Nossuh" and "Sho 'nuff, boss". But that's knowing that Shel Silverstein wrote a powerful bunch of Civil War songs with an anti-racist message or subtext. In day to day conversation: nope. Out it goes.

  3. I worked up a lengthy and self-serving diatribe about political correctness, but decided simpler is better. Don't worry too much about 'dark', else one risks the assumption that black folks (or any folks) pay more attention to what people say rather than what people do.


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