Words Matter

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By Bill Koch, editor

Words matter.

It was February 1972 when Gunners Mate Guns 1st Class David Clayton Thomas, sir, marched his first bootcamp company to Luce Auditorium at Naval Training Center, San Diego.

The base theater didn’t look very big from the outside, but inside, it was cavernous, almost dank. It contained more seats in one place than I had ever seen in my life. Company 062 was one of that last to enter. There must have been 2,000 recruits in their seats, waiting for the cultural awareness program to begin.

I was raised in a small, rural farm town in an area of Southeastern Oklahoma known as “Little Dixie.” My folks didn’t speak of their heritage. I knew my maternal grandparents came from Tennessee and Georgia. My paternal grandparents came from Alabama and Mississippi. Other than that, I knew I was born in Texas and raised in Oklahoma.

Please understand that the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl that forced so many people to uproot their families and move to California was still recent history at the time of my birth. Poor people from Oklahoma, Kansas, Arkansas and Texas were migrant workers and the term “Okie” was still a slur that followed me to bootcamp.

In a self-deprecating manner, I told everyone, “I’m just a poor dumb Okie with the God-given right to brag (because I was born in Texas)!”

Honestly, I didn’t have a very high opinion of myself.

The cultural awareness program began. A black chief petty officer was the facilitator. I believe the proper term at the time was, African-American. According to The Associated Press Stylebook, the correct identifier now is black, unless the person is known to be of African descent or if a person requests identification as an African-American.

The chief petty officer spoke of race, customs, heritage and many other things that were new concepts to me. The only thing I remember about his lecture is that the longer he spoke, the madder I became, and I was irate by the time he finished his spiel and asked if there were any questions.

I immediately raised my hand and he called on me. I stood and for all the reasons previously stated, I said something like, “It’s fine for you to stand up there and talk about your heritage and your customs because everybody knows where your ancestors came from.”

“Where did I come from?” he asked.

“Everybody knows you came from Africa!” I blurted out loud enough for all 2,000 recruits to hear.

“I’ll have you know,” he replied. “I came from France!”

I sank down into my seat not knowing that that incident was only the first of many lessons I was to learn about race relations.

I joined the Navy shortly after the race riots in the late 60s occurred on a couple of aircraft carriers. The cultural awareness training in bootcamp was only the first of many racial sensitivity training seminars I attended throughout my career. In the 70s, the Navy required everyone to attend classes called “Upward Seminars” or “Archie Bunker School.” 

That same chief petty officer taught the two-week seminar and we butted heads again. He proved to me that I was wrong 99 percent of the time. Fortunately for me, another facilitator’s family was from Southeastern Oklahoma and took my side of arguments the other 1 percent.

My views on race have changed radically since bootcamp. During my career, a Hawaiian boatswain’s mate saved my life early in my career. Later, a black man saved my life when, after a night of extremely heavy drinking, I mistook a mooring line for the gangplank. A black man taught my two boys how to swim at the base swimming pool.

In Cleveland, Tennessee, where I lived before moving here, my very best friend (except my wife) is a black Jehovah’s Witness. He has no interest in politics and is about as neutral as possible.

I was furious after hearing the comment made by congressman Ron DeSantis. I wasn’t sure if I was overreacting, so I emailed the full quote in context to my friend and asked, “What does this mean to you.”

The following is his reply.

 “That’s a very interesting and inflammatory expression to use — ‘Monkey this up.’ It’s not even a common expression, like ‘stop monkeying around.’ I can see how this could be viewed as a ‘dog whistle’ with a deliberately ambiguous expression to hint to those who are racist while being able to deny the obvious implication. The fact that the expression ‘Monkey this up,’ was used — knowing the racial climate we currently live in — suggests to me that a subtle and insidious message was being sent to people who might equate black people with monkeys.

“Here’s another point to consider: If I looked at this statement, knowing that such an expression does not come naturally, but is forced into a sentence because it’s such an unnatural term; “Monkey this up,” I would choose my words more carefully because a sensitive person would never want to imply the wrong thing by using the wrong words. In my personal opinion, these words were well chosen to let a base of like-minded people know that ‘I think about them (black people) like you (racists do) do.’ He could have just as easily said, ‘We don’t want watermelon seeds dropping everywhere to the tune of huge tax increases and bankrupting the state.’ Same difference. That’s just my opinion. I could be wrong.”

So, this column is ending with the same two words it began with: Words matter.