Ruth Bass: Vocabularies, along with tomatoes, need some weeding


RICHMOND — In elementary school in Amherst, kids asked, "What are you?" My brother and I must have looked blank because fourth and fifth grade scorn followed. When they finished looking down their small noses, they said, "Polish, French, Italian — what are you?" If we said, "American," they laughed.

We went home for lunch, as usual, and asked our mother, who explained that they wanted to know what country our families had come from originally. She advised that we say "mainly English" and not bother to explain that it was so long ago that none of us ever talked about it.

All through the country, we're still thinking like elementary school kids. And what was embedded in the very soil of our nation when it was young will not be uprooted easily or happily as the country grows old. Bias, whether be it for gender or race or ethnicity, is passed down from parents to offspring as reliably as if it were included in their wills.

During an ABC-TV town hall last week, as Barack Obama was tried to deal with the hatreds that have come out of the shadows in the present presidential campaign, it was apparent that long-range solutions to neighborhood relationships with police, for instance, will take far more time than anyone of good heart wants it to. Love thy neighbor, Jesus said, but even his most avid followers aren't managing that.

As in any seemingly insurmountable problem, Band-Aids exist. They won't heal a major wound, but they might slow the bleeding. None of us has the power to make major changes in how the world works. But each of us can, for instance, work on vocabulary.

We can cut out the labels. Awhile ago, some black people defended their own use of the N word. They shouldn't use it, nor should anyone else. And all those other words to describe certain groups — the K word, the D word, the F word, the G word, etc. — should be ditched. Unfortunately, some Americans would be close to speechless for the first weeks — but the cleanup might prove profound.

We could eschew the jokes that send a group into paroxysms of laughter while making fun of ethnic groups, religious groups, supposedly "dumb" blondes, women in general and gays. I worked in the same place as a man who apparently needed more things to do. He always had time to stop others with yet another joke about Poles, Jews, Native Americans or women. One day, I interrupted the joke, explained why and walked away. He was more puzzled than insulted, but I was off his story list forever.

We need to consider some of the other, more complex labeling customs. From the moment he emerged onto the national map, Barack Obama has been labeled a black man, even though he's half white and was brought up by a white mother and white grandparents. No one ever calls him white, including he himself, although it's genetically just as accurate. The terms Hispanic and African-American, come to think of it, are major labels. These two groups are piled into polling compartments as if each were of one brain, much as soccer moms were a few years ago.

On a different front, it seems a shame that an elderly American woman has to write a letter to the editor to express her surprise and gratitude when a guy in a parking lot helped her load grocery bags into her car. An extended helping hand shouldn't be a big deal.

We all have prejudices, things that are bigger than likes and dislikes. Anyone who denies that is not being honest with himself or herself. Some are based on fear, some on unfamiliarity, some on irrationality. One of the Band-Aids is just a matter of seeing the bias that lives in the brain we carry around — and trying to figure out the why of it.

Long-term solutions for divisiveness, along with the questionable state of equal justice for all, may take half of forever. We have generations of stuff to fix, and we need to speak up, protest and vote. Donald Trump has essentially yelled, "Fire!" in a crowded theater, and the blaze must be put out.

We do have one sizable bandage on hand. If people pulled together in good faith, we could ban assault-type weapons entirely, making them available only as a recreational activity at a shooting range. That doesn't solve the problem of hate — but it makes it harder for one person's searing hatred to execute dozens of people in seconds. In the meantime, while freedom of speech is precious, it needs to be used with care whether twitting or tweeting or muttering into one's beer.

Ruth Bass is a former Sunday editor of The Eagle. Her web site is


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