Yesterday, I received an email from the Houston Museum of Natural Science. It was an announcement of its Halloween mixer, and the subject line invited me to “Party With Spooks!”. I opened it out of mild curiosity, saw there would be drinks, dancing and loud music provided by two DJs, and quickly determined I would not be in attendance, being the happily boring married person that I am now.
A while later, I saw that the museum had sent me another email. This time the subject line expressed remorse. “Our Sincerest Apologies,” it read. Was this a cheeky sales pitch “We’re Sorry This Discount Is So Good!” type of deal? It was not. Instead, it was a sincere apology for having included a word with an “offensive connotation” in the previous email. I had to go back to look. “Spooks.” Really? They were apologizing for using a legitimate word with a well-established and still recognized meaning in the exact right application. I had to wonder who decided it was offensive, and why or how, when the intended meaning was so clear?
I sat with this for a while and decided to Google the definition of the word. Here is what comes up:
noun: spook; plural noun: spooks
- A Ghost
- North American
After Definition 2, we are given a drop-down arrow for additional definitions. We click and: Offensive *Dated* a contemptuous term for a black person
Note the offensive use is labeled as “dated,” and rightfully so. I have rarely heard it used in this way throughout my nearly 42 years in the world, and I am almost positive every time I did was while watching a movie set in another era. As I am cautious to use any absolutes, I will only say that if there are still people using “spook” in such an ugly way, there are nearly none and likely so deep in a backward culture that they rarely venture out into mainstream society. Or, so old that they will not likely walk the earth much longer.
Why, then, did someone decide to bring this obsolete and horrid use back into the light? No doubt because of the oversensitive political climate we find ourselves in today. I am not trivializing use of truly offensive words. The N-word historically has only one meaning and cannot be taken in any other way and should be offensive to anyone reading or hearing it. There is no other use for it that would allow it back into a respectable place within our language. We cannot ignore it and give it time to shed its evil it was born of and made to be only that. But, then again, maybe that’s wrong. Many black people have taken ownership of the word and use it as a term of endearment or respect for other black people. It would, no doubt, take a very long time for it to be safe for anyone else to touch, though, if ever. The stink of its history is just too fresh.
We still use terms and phrases today that are rooted in racism, and most of us don’t even know it, including many people whose ancestors would no doubt have been very offended by them. I recently learned that “gypsy” has racist roots, while it has lived in my mind and vocabulary as a person to be admired. A free-spirited traveler. Wily and seductive. Or, just Stevie Nicks. I, and many others, had no idea or thought of the word being anything other than cool. In the article here, the phrases that strike me as least obvious and perhaps most frequently used are “Long time no see” and “No can do.” Do either of these sound offensive to you? Have you ever heard them used as racial slurs? Guess what? They used to be. Over time, though, the connotation lost its power and they were assimilated into the endless string of colloquialisms that we use all the time, with zero ill-intent.
I know that the mark of the email apology was only well-intentioned and I understand the desire to cast out racial, sexual and cultural hate. We need to. However, sometimes in our efforts, we only exacerbate a situation. Scratch the scab off of a nearly completely healed wound—or worse, create a fresh wound altogether. I see it more and more as of late, and it is tiring. Conversation and thinking have moved so far away from center off to either extreme that everything feels dangerous. There is no place for reason and constructive dialogue, just opportunities for aggressive attacks and overstated offense. I liken the latter to flopping in soccer (or football, depending on where you live). If you’re not familiar, please take a minute to check out this hilarious review of soccer flops by Ozzyman, here. A word of caution, if the F-word offends you, do not watch.
I fear that the sterile environment in many universities, the echo chambers created in social media and the crafty use of emotional politics there as well as in network news programming are setting today’s young people up for great disappointment, constant offense and a gross deprivation of critical thinking. On top of that, the further the left moves, the further the right does in opposite, and that is causing some abhorrent behavior by so called grown-ups on both sides. At some point, we have to damper the emotional charge of things, put down our swords and shields and be logical, charitable and less defensive with each other.
In closing, please don’t think I am hypocritical enough to lash out against anyone or any place over such a well-meaning mishap. It just gave me an opportunity to spend some time with and reflect upon my thoughts about it. I love the Houston Museum of Natural Science and will continue to be a patron there. I highly recommend everyone visit. They have expanded greatly since I first moved here 13 years ago, and the standard exhibits are fantastic. Special exhibitions change every few months, and I have enjoyed each one I’ve experienced. Do not miss a show in the planetarium or 3D theater. If you live in Houston, it’s a great value and opportunity to support wonder and learning by purchasing an annual membership.