Cultural Awareness as Deflector Shield

I adored my auntie. I am, as it happens, an auntie my own self, a role I absolutely adore filling. Yet still, there is my absolute distaste at hearing white folks use this term in relation to Representative Maxine Waters.

Since my essay about Maxine Waters was published last month, I’ve been thinking about the most popular, annoying reactions I’ve seen. A lot of people on a lot of different threads had a response similar to one of these:

“Oh, in my family, we call all older women and men “aunt” or “uncle” as a sign of respect, even if they aren’t related to us.”

“Oh, in the [fill in your not continental American cultural background here] culture, the term is used to show respect.”

“Oh, that seems like an American thing. In my country it’s totally different.”

“Oh, my students from [name any other country in the world] call me “auntie” all the time, and they mean it respectfully. I like it.”

“Oh, you can’t assume everyone has the same understanding of that term as you do.”

“Oh, if you tell people not to say “auntie” you could be hurting their feelings because it means something else in their culture.”

Did you notice a pattern? I saw the same thing happen over and over. The moment one person posted one of these “what about this other culture” comments, there are suddenly a bunch of replies from other people talking about the traditions of other countries and cultures and how interesting the similarities or differences are … and suddenly we’re having a whole other conversation that has nothing to do with what I was writing about.

Feh.

On almost all these threads, someone eventually stepped in–and then stepped in when it happened again and then again … because of course–and pointed out that these discussions were missing the point. And some of the Cultural Awareness people were able to hear and understand that. Others really struggled with it. Hard.

And I’m feeling the need to shine my light on why seeing that “other culture” conversation kept springing up drove me nuts.

People seemed to want to be sure everyone understood that “auntie” doesn’t have a negative connotation round their way. Fine. But you know what? The word doesn’t have a negative connotation right here, in the States. It is a term of love and respect, a term used for elders we care about, whether they’re in our families or not. Same meaning and use as in whatever other culture you heard about or studied or lived in during your gap year or whatever. Same.

That’s the point.

The term has always been familial, has always been used to show love and respect. Subverting that meaning and use of the term was surely one of the reasons the term was chosen for this distinctly American, disrespectful use. My essay draws that line, specifically states that using “Auntie” was a way for polite-seeming white people to speak impolitely to Black women, it allowed them to sugar-coat their disdain, their insult, their race prejudice with a kind-seeming honorific. They subverted “Auntie,” made it ugly.

So, if you read the essay, it should have been easy to see that there was no need to call out the traditions in other countries. None at all. And yet there were all those comments, again and again and again.

Here, I’ll insert the other, somewhat-related comment I also saw quite a bit:

“Oh, I’ve never heard this use before so when I say it I am, obviously, not using it that way, so there’s no problem.”

It’s easy for me to believe people wouldn’t have been aware that they were hearing “auntie” used in a demeaning way, but they’ve surely heard the term used for Black women–because, hello, they must absolutely have heard of Aunt Jemima. But even if you never knew there was some nasty history attached to “Auntie,” I’m telling you that there is, I’m telling you exactly what that nasty history is. So yes, you could have called Rep. Waters “Auntie” before you learned the backstory, but now that you know the backstory, why would you still want to use the word? If I’m saying I feel a way hearing that word in your mouth, why would you still want to use that word?

To get back to everyone else, making the case for using the term today because it’s used respectfully in another culture is just as insulting. In some ways, it’s actually more insulting. If I tell you there is a very specific use of the term that is particular a) to this country and b) to white people and Black women, and if I tell you that hearing white people in 2017 refer to a Black woman using this term makes me feel a way … one thing I’m not asking is for a cultural awareness lesson so that I can learn how other peoples use that word and why I shouldn’t only associate it with negative ideas. And by telling me all of that, you are letting me know either that you missed the point of my essay entirely, or you are intentionally harping on this side point to move the conversation away from racism.

Guess which one I think you’re doing.

I’m sure it’s uncomfortable to hear about the tools of racism and to learn that you’ve been using one of them when you didn’t realize it. And I imagine it’s much easier and far more comfortable to deflect, to resist the focus on something ugly and wax poetic about an alternative story that makes you feel better.

I get all of that. I’m not here for it.

I’m always talking about how white folks need to step up and do their work. Feeling uncomfortable? That’s part of the work. White people need to “suffer” through the few moments of feeling Ill at ease and hear what’s being said. My essay wasn’t an attack or an accusation. It was me letting people know how I hear the word “Auntie” when white folks use it in reference to Rep. Waters. It was a request that white folks stop using the term. It was an opportunity for folks (maybe primarily white folks) to learn something about this country’s history–because I decided to trust that people really mightn’t know about that bit of ugliness in our national past. And it was an opportunity for white people–once they learned about the derogatory use of “auntie”–to make the decision not to continue saying something that could be hurtful.

I’m going to extend my benefit of the doubt a little further and say it’s likely that most of the people talking about the ways other cultures around the world use “Auntie” aren’t fully aware that they are trying to change the subject and turn the conversation away from the sticky discomfort of talking about racism. I’m being this generous because I know that many of the ways white folks deflect to insulate themselves from having to deal with racism are unconscious.

Let’s forget racism for a minute. Suppose you were in a meeting that included a person who smacked you really hard across the head every time you saw them. You decide to say something about this awful smacking crap, and you hope that saying it in the group will finally get this person to stop because the group will rally around you and condemn that violent behavior.

You say, “You know, I have to tell you that it’s really painful and enraging when you smack me in the head.” And that person nods and says, “Oh my God, have you ever noticed how 2-year-olds can be slap-fighting one minute and then kissing like crazy the next?”

And, before you can point out that this has.not one thing to do with your point, someone else says, “Oh, my partner always gives me a little slap on the shoulder when she walks up to me. We call them ‘love taps,’ and I really like it.”

“Oh, my partner and I have love taps, too!” another group member says. “I thought that was just our little thing. How funny that you have that, too!”

And suddenly everyone is talking about love taps and the boy who pulled their hair on the playground in kindergarten who proposed after college … and the issue of you being assaulted by your colleague has been disappeared.

Frustrating as hell, isn’t it? Frustrating as hell.

To be most clear: the sidelining of my point about white people and “Auntie” is like this disappearing of calling out your colleague’s violence.

Does it seem like a lot to ask white folks to change their behavior, to sit down and listen when someone tells them something they’re doing is hurtful, silencing, derailing? It shouldn’t be, but clearly, it is a lot to ask … and the truth of that is maddening.

Yes, this is another one of those moments when I say a whole lot of stuff and then just say, “I’m tired. Beat to my fucking socks.” Because … yeah.

I’m glad a lot of people read my essay–more people than have ever read anything else I’ve ever written. That’s a wonderful thing. I just wish more of them had allowed themselves to actually hear what I had to say.


For 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I fell months behind on my #GriotGrind, and it seemed highly unlikely that I’d write 52 essays by year’s end. But then I dedicated my NaNoWriMo to writing essays, and did a pretty good job of catching up! I’ve got to move house before the end of December, so I’m unlikely to reach 52 essays. Still, I’ve written more this year than in the last two combined, and that adds up to a solid WIN in my book! Get ready for #52essays2018!

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