Tuesday, August 4, 2009

And the Lightbulb Goes On

So I'm reading this post at Shakesville about a full-of-FAIL article by Satoshi Kanazawa about how feminism is evil and unneccesary because women are HAWT and only need shoes (or something; his logic is hard to follow, mostly because there doesn't seem to be any.) And there's a comments thread that is in the best tradition of Shakesville comments threads. Which means, among other things, that there's a discussion of why a common epithet turns out to be far nastier than you thought.*

In this case, it turns out the word "maroon" really is a racist term**, even though I (and the original commentator) seem to have always associated it with Bugs Bunny's joking mispronunciation of "moron." (Which is also not cool, because it makes fun of people with mental disabilities.)

Now, being what I am--a human being caught in the invisible web of the kyriarchy--I couldn't help for a second thinking, "great, another word I'll have to be careful about using." (Just for a second, ducks, we take checking privilege seriously around here.) And then it occurred to me: oh yes, how terrible it would be to end up living in a world where a person's thoughts would have to be actually addressed, instead of just dismissed by a senseless epithet that lets you turn off your brain. How truly awful that would be for everyone.

But I never claimed to be quick on the uptake.


*That's not snark; one of the great things about Shakesville is that you continually get your assumptions challenged there.

**The people the term applied to were actually pretty amazing--fleeing slavery to forge an existence out of almost nothing.


  1. On a similar note: moron is unacceptable? Nooooo! I shall be very upset if that's so - it's Ancient Greek for "foolish", as opposed to words deriving from disability/mental illness. I know, I know, origin means little if a word has developed modern association, but still... I'll be sad to drop it, it appeals to me as a Classicist nerd!

  2. C., I agree that it's an ableist term, but calling it a racist term based on the say-so of one anonymous commenter on Shakesville doesn't persuade me. I think that's a classic example of false etymology based on the fact that two distinct words happen to be homonyms. The term "maroon" as used to refer to certain communities of escaped slaves has been around for centuries, but I don't believe there's any evidence at all that it was used to connote stupidity before the Bugs Bunny malapropism for "moron" became popular. In other words, I think the connection that poster drew is about as valid as the idea that "drag" comes from "dressed as a girl."

    Love your blog,


  3. @Donna:

    You miss the larger point--that by using "maroon" for stupid, there's the chance that someone might understand me to mean "maroon" as in "stupid person of color."

    So what's the moral thing to do? Continue to use it that way, and possibly offend someone, or stop using it period? Hell, what's easier?

    I am increasingly puzzled as to why people need to cling to the right to hurt other people's feelings.

  4. I completely agree with you about the larger point; no argument there. Etymology aside, and even apart from the fact that it isn't a word I ever use myself, I can't imagine that it's a "necessary" word for anyone, or that anyone could legitimately use the excuse that it would materially interfere with their freedom of expression to stop using it.

    I've tried to think of similar words that could be perceived as offensive because of their homonymic association even though the origin of the word has nothing to do with the offensive connotation -- something that puts this word in a different category from something like, say, the word "lame" -- but haven't been able to. The closest I came was the word "niggardly." I'm always suspicious when people insist on using that word, and then defend themselves by saying that it has nothing to do with the "n" word, that they know perfectly well that it brings the latter word to mind and are using it preceisely to offend.


  5. Hi, Donna. I'm the person who is trying to make it more widely known that 'maroon' has its origins in racist terminology. I'm not anonymous. I'm barely pseudonymous; it's easy to follow my handle at Shakesville back to my LiveJournal and get my real name.

    Your argument is exactly the same argument I hear nearly every time I talk to other white people about racism. Maroon might be ableist but it's not racist because you don't want it to be. The corpses hanging by their necks from trees in World of Warcraft aren't evocative of the lynchings of black people in the U.S. because white people don't want it to be. The depictions of trolls as a vicious racist stereotype of black people isn't racist because they're trolls, not human, and Blizzard didn't intend it to be racist. And white people don't want it to be.

    You don't want 'maroon' to be racist. That's fine. For you, it won't be. I'm not trying to reach you. I'm trying to reach the people who are willing to accept that not being racist means being uncomfortable a lot because you're no longer shielded behind an impenetrable privilege that says nothing is offensive to someone else unless you give it your approval.


  6. Moira, C., I'm African American, and certainly don't want to support the use of racist language. I don't question the racist etymology of "maroon" because I want to preserve a privilege to use it, as I'm not sure I've ever used the word in conversation in my life and could easily avoid doing so from this point forward.

    But I have never seen an etymology of "maroon" (used to mean a stupid person) that persuasively tied it to the various historical Maroon populations. And false etymologies are so incredibly common, I think it's the sort of thing that's worth getting right.

    Even if, as in the case of a word like "niggardly", we decide the word is worth avoiding even though it is technically unrelated to nigger, I'm very uncomfortable going to a place where we start actively denying that this distinction does exist, let alone attacking folks arguing in good faith on that basis. It feels too much like the folks who think they're noting something significant when they compare "Obama" and "Osama".

    Stop using maroon? Fine (especially given that even the etymology I favor is problematic for ableist reasons). But let's not insist it connects etymologically to the Maroon ex-slave populations if it doesn't. And if it does, then leading people who question it in good faith to some useful citations or sources is better than telling those people they simply want to deny racism out of existence for their own comfort.



  7. I never heard the Bugs Bunny version, but the first time I heard maroon used to mean "really clueless" I found it offensive, although I realized it was probably a deliberate malapropism based on moron. There are so many other ways to say "really foolish", that I think we can avoid using the name of a highly admirable group of people.