A couple of evenings ago, I answered the doorbell to two bouncy, smiley middle schoolers, a blond, the older sister of the little girl who had been over playing all afternoon, and her Chinese friend. I invited them in with a Hello, girls, how are you, and other general niceties. The blond responded to my inquiries as such: So, like it’s my aunt’s birthday? And we’re going out to dinner? And my friend from school is coming with us? So, like it’s time for my sister to come home now? Was she asking me to verify these things? I wasn’t sure. Perhaps she had been studying the movie Valley Girl and was perfecting that insipid style of speech for a play. One can hope.
As we waited together in the foyer, I asked them questions about school and the holidays and where they were going for dinner, and they responded in that singsongy answer-question manner. I called to the little sister that it was time to go home, and here the chit chat lingered on dinner and favorite foods. The blond said to her friend, You eat fried rice like because you’re Chinese? They bounced and giggled, and the friend replied, Oh my god, like that is so totally racist? and they burst into a fit of shrugging and honking.
Witnessing this I started feeling itchy, and called downstairs, urging the sister to hurry, that it was time to leave, but she was too busy ignoring me. The blond then said to her friend, You’re like always having rice when I’m at your house? To which the Chinese friend retorted, I can’t believe like how racist that is?! And, once again, they disintegrated into laughter that sounded more like three short wheezes and a squeal, over and over and over, and all the while the Chinese friend is shaking her head and rolling her eyes at her very funny friend. Who she keeps calling a racist.
I study them with an expression that has been described to me as unpleasant. It’s when I hear something that I do not like, or that I find disturbing, and it bothers my ears which makes my face muscles constrict into what appears to be a squinty scowl, just as it pulls my chin high into the air and with it up come my arms, who reflexively cross over my chest tightly in order to keep them from continuing over my head. It’s an innocent reaction, contemplative, really, and completely autonomic and widely misunderstood. I have an aversion to this type of speech pattern, one could say an allergy, to which the only remedy is total removal of the irritant.
I stand in front of the two sillies in said posture. Girls, I say calmly, a racist is someone who believes that one person or group is superior to another solely because of race, so those were not racist comments, they were just observations. Do you understand the difference? They stopped wiggling and stared at me. Waiting, just waiting, non-blinking, hollow staring without a hint of recognition and maybe a touch of fear. Hurry or we’ll be in big trouble? the blond yells down the hallway. Did I not say that in English? I think to myself. More than likely, yes, I did, but I couldn’t remember, and by the way they were looking at me I thought, perhaps not. Just then, the little sister popped up, coat on, ready to go. The girls did not disguise their relief as their eyes lolled about in their sockets and they began that hunched-back shoulder-rolling that seems to preface giggling and other inanities.
I said good bye and thanks for playing and to enjoy their dinner and thank you for the interesting conversation. The girls seemed to have already forgotten about the deep discussion that we almost had, and I had a sudden panic that in a mere six years they would both be eligible to vote…
I imagined the future: Umm, I just want to say, that, like I’m really really proud of myself for all of my hard work ruining the fossil fuel industry? And, like I think solar is really really awesome? And, I think if we all ride bicycles there will be world peace because you can’t, umm, fire a gun from a bike? And if you like fried rice, you’re like totally racist so I’m leading a world boycott of it? Heeheehee!
It reminded me of an interview I listened to the other day on NPR of a woman who works for the Environmental Protection Agency discussing the checkered history and industry projections of coal, and with the exact same inflection as these girls, i.e., a complete absence of gravity, and a smile behind every word, she said definitively that it would be dead..? I thought it was a mock interview and laughed through most of it, until the end, when I realized it wasn’t a spoof after all; it was real, and that absurd woman was real. And she was probably an absurd sounding middle schooler before she went on to be just as absurd in high school and then on to Harvard to double-major in Historical Blunders of White Men and Girl Power, and then proceeded get a job at the EPA to harass an entire segment of our energy economy out of business. I imagined that woman in one of her meetings, eyes lolling about in that same girlish manner of indecision, shoulders rolling and bouncing, snort-laughing at some hilarious organic farming joke she heard over the recycling bin.
In theatre, and then later in debate (theatre’s aggressive cousin), I learned that people will judge you, whether you want them to or not, and they will do so first by the way you speak, and second by the way you look; it therefore was most important to learn to speak properly, without a noticeable accent, and to speak with confidence. Confusing a statement and a question was unforgivable, an instant shave of twenty-five IQ points. Using like and umm in place of a thoughtful pause was always inexcusable, instant banishment from any meaningful conversations. (One night in high school over dinner, my dad asked me about my day, and every time I said umm, he immediately yelled umm! It was illustrative, and incredibly obnoxious, and aggravating. I didn’t speak to my dad for a week or so after that teaching moment, which he found hilarious, and which aggravated me even more, but I must admit that it broke my umm habit.) The worst offense, however, was the misusage of words, back to point, and these girls violated it, and violated all three with the determination of a pack of hyenas.
In summation, if you’re fortunate enough to not have been born in the Valley, don’t pretend that you were by adopting the accent; if you need time to collect your thoughts so that you can speak coherently, just stop talking, less is better; if you don’t know what a word means, truly means, especially if it is a lightening rod like racist, don’t use it, certainly don’t accuse your friends of being it, and don’t laugh at it unless you are a well prepared to defend yourself, verbally and physically. We are the protectors of our culture, which we pass down via the instrument of language, and to abuse it so is more than an affront to our society, it is like totally embarrassing?!