I’m a white, American, middle class, straight, cis gendered male. I was born in 1979.
I tell you these things because, in this instance, they’re important to the story.
Because I’ve never been discriminated against. Not once. Though some kids did attempt it once.
It was the early nineties, and I was walking to a friend’s house. I was used to being picked on by other kids in my suburban neighborhood, because in the early nineties, it wasn’t yet cool to be a nerd.
And I was a nerd among nerds, friends.
So I braced myself when I heard bikes approaching from behind me. As they passed me, I saw that the kids riding them were African-American (trust me, that’s important to the story).
As they rode by me, they shouted “CRACKER!” at me and rode away laughing.
I stopped. I didn’t respond. I was a bit confused. I mean, I knew that “cracker” was a derogatory term for white people. I just didn’t understand why these kids hadn’t picked one of the more obvious taunts. I was carrying a pile of Dungeons and Dragons books for crying out loud.
I shrugged and kept walking. Unlike other insults, this one had no effect on me. Honestly, the kids might as well have shouted “FIVE FOOT EIGHT!” or “BLUE EYES!”. Both would have been accurate descriptions of me, and both would have stung about the same, which is to say not at all.
I mean, they had pointed out that I was white - so what? Big deal. The word “cracker” didn’t have any weight to it, so when they threw it at me, it bounced off of me like a shot from a Nerf gun.
I’ve been thinking about this story quite a bit lately, because I’ve been thinking about the power of words quite a bit.
I find that many people (including myself sometimes) don’t always understand the power of words. They can’t understand why some words hurt people. They’re only words, after all. Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.
Except sometimes they do. Not always, as my story demonstrates. Some people can use certain words safely. For instance, my family originally came from Italy. If I tell a racist joke about Italian immigrants, it doesn’t have the same power as an Irish person telling it.
In fact, an Irish person telling the joke wouldn’t even have an effect on me. I’ve never been discriminated against due to my ancestry. But the same joke would enrage my father, and make my grandfather violent.
And had I responded to those kids with a certain word, one so powerful that I won’t even put it in this post, a fight would have certainly ensued. This word is the nuclear weapon of words when wielded by a white person.
But that same word can be handled safely by an African-American.
This makes some white people feel very put upon. They say things like, “It’s just a word! Why can’t we use it? I mean, not that we WANT to, but...what about equality? If we’re all equal, why can’t we all use the same words?”
Ah, but all words are not equal. That’s the problem. They don’t exist in a vacuum. They have history. They have weight, which can’t be ignored any more than the weight of a rock can be ignored.
So when I hear American Christians claiming persecution, I have to laugh. I’m not saying that a Christian in America has never been persecuted, but most of what is claimed as persecution is anything but.
Someone got mad because you said you think gay people shouldn’t get married? Heaven forbid! I mean, that’s a CLEAR violation of your First Amendment right to say whatever you want with no consequences whatsoever.
Oh, wait. The First Amendment doesn’t say that. Here’s a quarter, call someone who cares (for my younger readers, that quip refers to a primitive technology called a “pay phone”).
You can’t throw around hand grenade type words about gay marriage and then throw a pity party when they respond. Especially when the words they throw back at you are probably about as effective as “cracker” was to me.
When Christians talk about the gay “lifestyle” being “perverted”, those words carry tremendous weight because of the way that gay people have been treated throughout much of human history.When they respond by calling Christians bigots, most Christians roll their eyes and say “Hey, I’m just loving the sinner and hating the sin.”
Not the same.
Daniel Tosh says it would be funny if a female heckler got raped, and people rush to his defense when people criticize him. How dare a woman take a rape joke personally! I mean, it’s not like rape is a reality that women have to worry about or anything.
Here’s the thing: that “joke” carried different weight because it was aimed at a woman. Because that woman probably thought, even if it was just for a split second, “Oh my God, is someone actually going to try and rape me.” A man wouldn’t have thought that. Yes, I know, men get raped too. But still, a man wouldn’t have thought that.
Not the same.
It’s no wonder that Christians and conservatives tend to have a great deal of trouble with the relative power of words. They are two groups who love to see things in black and white.
But shades of grey do exist. (And there are way more than fifty). And the power of words is relative.
If you choose to ignore this fact, do so at your own peril.