Last week my two and half year-old grandson, cheeks rosy, blond curls in a tousle, innocently dropped the “F” bomb at daycare.
“That’s MY fucking truck!” he announced as a playmate ran toward the ride-on toy pickup.
Unsure of exactly what he had said, toddler speak being what it is, his teacher asked Vince to repeat himself.
“It’s MY fucking truck,” he said, now seated astride the coveted vehicle, his upturned face looking matter-of-fact rather than defiant or smug.
“Vince, we don’t say ‘fucking’ here. It’s a word that can make people feel bad. You can say ‘It’s my special truck.’ That’s more appropriate.”
When my daughter Emily was told of the incident, she was simultaneously horrified and amused. After all, his usage of the “f” bomb had been pitch perfect, adding emphasis to his statement just as he intended.
No doubt he had heard her use it enough times. Strapped in his carseat while his mom navigated New York City traffic, Vince obviously picked up on her reflexive “What a fucking idiot!” muttered when cut off by a taxi or stuck behind a slow moving out-of-towner.
“I guess I’m going to have to clean up my language,” she texted me, her words accompanied by a face palm emoji.
So far, Vince hasn’t shown any signs of recidivism. And even if he were to use the forbidden adjective again, the consequences would be nil. His age, gender and, yes, skin color protect him from being seen as somehow threatening to the status quo.
Not so for others who are not adorable blonde, blue-eyed toddlers. The question of who gets to use what language in “polite” conversation has always been a function of the norms espoused (if not practiced) by the dominant group.
Two recent examples involve powerful women of color. After weeks of bad press and even more bad faith posturing by Republican senators, Neera Tanden withdrew her nomination to become Director of the Office of Management and Budget this past Sunday afternoon. Her sin: tweets that criticized Republicans.
In this case, the “f” bomb was her frankness in calling out the incompetence and hypocrisy of the Trump administration and its enablers. In the rough and tumble world of Twitter, her less than vulgar language was nonetheless considered “inappropriate” and ultimately disqualifying by folks like Senator Rob Portman. As NPR reported in its coverage of the senator’s confirmation hearing question:
“You wrote that Susan Collins is, quote, ‘the worst.’ That Tom Cotton is a fraud. That vampires have more heart than Ted Cruz. You called leader McConnell ‘Moscow Mitch’ and ‘Voldemort. How do you plan to mend fences and build relationships with members of Congress you have attacked through your public statements?”
“For those concerned about my rhetoric and my language, I’m sorry,” Tanden said. “I’m sorry for any hurt that they’ve caused.”
Her apology wasn’t enough. As the first woman of color to be nominated for Director of OMB, she did not, apparently, have to actually drop the “f” bomb to have her opinions considered inappropriate, hurtful, unforgivable. Just tweeting the obvious in uncoded terms made her temperament “unsuitable,” the idea of her ascension to high office “unthinkable.” How unladylike!
Hours after reading about Tanden’s fate, I watched another woman of color describe the ways in which she had been silenced, her words and actions deemed inappropriate at best, hysterical or diabolical at worst. In this case, Meghan Markle dropped both an “r” bomb and an “f” bomb, accusing Britain’s royal family of both racism and favoritism toward some working royals at her expense and her family’s safety.
Channeling Princess Diana, Meghan had the audacity to try to set the record straight about her treatment at the hands of “The Firm.” A firestorm of criticism has ensued, castigating Meghan for manipulating poor Harry, trying to sabotage the monarchy, displaying ingratitude, craving the spotlight, practicing all manner of deviousness and outright deception.
The rules of engagement in society define what is considered “appropriate” or “polite.” In the wider arena, those rules are set by those at the top of the social pyramid due to their class, gender and race. In the West, that means that a few white men (and very occasionally white women –eg Queen Elizabeth) set the rules, and women and people of color or of lower social status are expected to follow them. In smaller social settings — family, neighborhood, tribe — separate rules might apply. Children are taught how to “code switch,” to know when it is appropriate to use which set of rules.
As the societies that we live in have become more heterogeneous and more influenced by social media, the boundaries between cultures, between informal and formal settings, between public and private have become so much more porous — and so much more difficult to navigate.
My grandson Vince will learn that some words should not be used in public, even if they are used in private. The more important lesson is that there is a difference between being polite in order to provide space for other people and using the rules of polite behavior to exclude others, to assert one’s privilege to control the conversation, to uphold the sometimes oppressive status quo.
I’m sure that my daughter and son-in-law will help Vince to understand the difference. And that will, as the kids say, “be the bomb!”