Tag Archives: language

Geronimo Is Not bin Laden

Laurie and Debbie say:

If you aren’t living under a rock somewhere, you know that the United States’ government’s operation which succeeded in killing Osama bin Laden was code-named Geronimo. As you probably also know, Geronimo is not just a cool-sounding word that a kid says when her sled barrels down the hill. Geronimo was a heroic Native American (Chiricahua Apache) leader who fought against the United States in an attempt to preserve Apache lands.

Indian Country Today Media Network published an excellent interview with Jeff Houser, Fort Sill Apache Tribe Chairman, who has asked President Obama to issue a formal apology for connecting Geronimo’s name to the most hated man of the 21st century.

[Tuesday] I was looking at the local paper and the headline said, “Relentless: How U.S. Brought Justice to Bin Laden’s Doorstep.” And there was a little quote that says the Seals killed Bin Laden with a bullet to the head using the code that Geronimo had been killed in action. I thought, “Geronimo”?

I think it was something done without a whole lot of thought as to how it would be represented to most of the Indian community. So often we’re not really thought of, we’re not really considered, so I think it was just another example of that. But this is the second time this year that the federal government has referenced Native people as similar to al Qaeda. There was a filing in federal court that compared the Seminoles to al Qaeda.

[If President Obama doesn’t apologize], then he misses an opportunity to really show Native people that he understands our struggles. So often tribes struggle and so this would just be another in the long line of problems we’ve faced and any number of things that have arisen over and over again. So if nothing comes of it, I wouldn’t really be surprised and I wouldn’t really be upset, but I’d be disappointed.

I’m very thankful for the response throughout Indian county and hope that at the very least this does provide an opportunity for tribal leaders to speak with a unified voice. For us (Geronimo’s tribe, the Chiricahua Apaches), having been imprisoned and referred to as enemies and savage and violent people and walked away from for nearly 30 years to have this association return is painful and I hope the collective response of Natives around the country and around the world will show that it’s not the appropriate thing to do. Our tribe was a prisoner of war with Geronimo. Unlike bin Laden, Geronimo didn’t resist; he willingly surrendered, relying on the promise of the American to return to his homeland in two years, and we’re still waiting for that promise to be fulfilled.

Neither of us expects Obama to apologize either, although of course he should.

Racial, religious, and ethnic terms slip all-too-easily into the language, in ways that let people who use them pretend (and even sometimes believe) that the terms don’t have their own history. These terms can be slurs, or complex cultural concepts, or names of heroes (or anything in between). It’s easy to say, “You’re behaving like a Jewish mother” without realizing that you’re feeding anti-Semitism. It’s easy to say, “Oh, those children were stolen by gypsies” without realizing that you’re categorizing an entire population as thieves, especially if you don’t know anyone that you know is Romany. It’s easy to say “Keep your cotton-picking hands off me” without thinking either about the hard labor of picking cotton or the “horny, calloused (and usually black) hands that picked cotton.” It’s easy to use the code name “Geronimo” for bin Laden without thinking about what you’re implying about the real Geronimo.

People who would never use the known ethnic slurs use terms like “gypped” and “Jewish princess” much more freely. We’re very appreciative of Jeff Hauser (and the unified Indian country reaction behind him) for calling for the apology. Calling out these underlying meanings regularly and clearly is the only chance we have to restore the history and change the language.

Disability Language: Respect Is a Feminist Value

Debbie says:

Feministing is a feminist group blog about which I have mixed feelings: they put up a lot of good stuff, they point out important issues, they pay attention to what’s going on and help me do the same … and at the same time, they’re frequently called out for being a home for white privilege, and not responding well when they make mistakes.

Recently, one of their bloggers used the phrase, “If having my car door opened makes me feel like lover man thinks I’m an invalid, not so feminist.”

Meloukhia at This Ain’t Livin’ wrote an open letter to Feministing on this topic. In the short letter, she points to her own excellent post on the importance of inclusive language

Feminism is useless, in my mind, if it fails to recognize an overlapping and intersecting collection of injustices. Even if all that you care about is “women,” I sincerely hope that you mean “all women.” As a movement, feminism is primarily focused on issues which involve white, Western, able-bodied cis women. Some of the gains for women accomplished by feminism, as a movement, have also benefited women outside this narrow category, it’s true, but a lack of understanding about the fact that all women experience life quite differently and may in fact have different priorities and concerns is exclusionary. And, again, if you care about all women, this is a problem, because it means that you are hurting other women when you do not consider things like race, gender, disability, and class to be “women’s issues.”

What do all of the following words or phrases have in common?

Bitch. Cripple. Grow a pair. Lame. Cunt. White trash. “He/his/him” as a generic when the gender of a subject is not known. Ballsy. Harpy. Whore. Female impersonator. Jewed. Real woman. Retarded. Slut. Dumb. Natural woman. Harridan. Witch. Idiot. Man up. Biological sex. Crazy. Tranny. Invalid. Psycho. Step up. Asexual (not in reference to someone who identifies as asexual). Breeder. Shrew. She-male. Gay (not in reference to sexual orientation). Moron. You guys as a generic greeting to a mixed gender group. Skank. Mankind. “Man” as a generic for “people.” Gyp. Halfwit. Insane. Schizo/schizophrenic. “Disabled” as in “the disabled.” Women born women. Ungendering by using “he” as a pronoun for a trans woman or “she” as a pronoun for a trans man. Fat/fatty (as an insult, not an adjective).

They’re all exclusionary. …

People who dislike being told that they should not use exclusionary language are often people who have something to lose if actual justice is achieved.

Since Meloukhia’s open letter was posted on Feministing, a few things have happened. First, the comment thread got long and unpleasant, and loaded with “people who dislike being told that they should not use exclusionary language” was eventually closed by Jessica Valenti (Feministing’s “lead blogger”) at the poster’s request. Now, Meloukhia says:

We are currently talking with Jessica about a group conversation with some representatives from the disabled feminist community and some Feministing staffers. Speaking for myself, I greatly appreciate that Jessica contacted me, and appears to be interested in a group dialogue with all of us. Hopefully between us, Jessica, and Courtney, we can have a productive discussion which will result in some changes at Feministing. I hope to be able to keep everyone updated about what is going on as things unfold, although there may be some radio silence while we work out the details of when/how we are going to have a conversation.

So, some progress. But, so far, no apology from Feministing (although the original poster apologized in email to Meloukhia). No explanation of how and why Feministing is going to work on this issue. In other words, they have not shown themselves to be good allies. (Link leads to Karnythia’s perfect list of how to be a good ally, of which the relevant one here is:

Don’t expect your feelings to be a priority in a discussion about X issue. Oftentimes people get off onto the tone argument because their feelings are hurt by the way a message was delivered. If you stand on someone’s foot and they tell you to get off? The correct response is not “Ask nicely” when you were in the wrong in the first place.

Maybe this is all happening in the radio silence. I hope so.

I understand the push to use exclusionary language. As a writer, I like to have a wide variety of words on my tongue and my fingertips. I like to think of language as a living entity that I can shape to my own purposes. Also as a writer, I understand that “sticks and stones can break my bones but names can really hurt me.” I’ve had too many friends hurt by words in their childhood, words in their workplace, words in their adult home.

Words matter. Using them thoughtfully is a genuine thing we can all do to help make change. It doesn’t cost any money. It doesn’t take a lot of time. (Allies need to spend time and money too, of course; but this is a comparatively easy ongoing piece of the effort.)