‘You can’t say that anymore’ (unless you’re a racist)

Tire tracks cigarette butt

Sunday was the first truly gorgeous day after a long winter — 65 degrees and sunny, perfect for doing yard work.

A regrettable decision, in retrospect.

I’d been meaning to get rid of an old lawn mower, so I hauled it from my shed to the curb, figuring someone would want it.

Soon, a pickup truck slowed in front of my house, and a woman in the passenger seat asked if I was giving the mower away. Yes, I replied, grateful to recycle it.

A man hopped out of the driver’s side, came around and opened the tailgate.

As he reached over to pick up the mower, I showed him where I had used clamps to repair the handle, which had snapped off. “I kind of jerry rigged it,” I said.

He loaded the mower into the truck bed, laughed and said, “I’d use another word for it, but it begins with N and you can’t say that anymore.”

He drove away, and I stood there confused and uncertain about what I had just heard.

Surely he couldn’t have meant the “N word.” I had never heard it in the context of fixing something in a haphazard way, as “jerry rig” implies. Even in my politically incorrect, ethnocentric upbringing, the N word was not acceptable.

Of course, I had to find out. Sure enough . . . the Urban Dictionary definition of “jerry rigged” (a World War II term based on a nickname for German soldiers) included a list of synonyms. “N-rigged” was among them.

Seeing that on the computer screen was awful, and I’m trying not to beat myself up for failing to question what the man meant.

The encounter raised other questions:

Why did I so casually use a term that insults one ethnic group, yet not realize I was hearing something even more offensive to another?

Would the couple have stopped to inquire about the mower if they saw an African-American man in the yard?

How do I squelch the stereotype that white males who drive pickup trucks are good ol’ boys who are pleasant enough — as long as you share the same skin tone?

I also have to fend off a default response that, while cynical, would have come in handy on an otherwise pleasant afternoon: Expect to be disappointed by human behavior; be surprised when people turn out to be genuinely good and kind.

Seems like it should be the other way around.

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About Jim McKeever

Observer, writer, father, runner based in Central New York.
This entry was posted in Irish Investigations, language and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to ‘You can’t say that anymore’ (unless you’re a racist)

  1. rachelwhims says:

    I’m embarrassed to say that I always heard that word used with the n-word. The first time I heard someone say jerry rig, I “corrected” them. When I think about that now, I just want to hide under a rock! Funny thing is, I wasn’t ‘raised’ to be racist. My parents actually spoke about equality quite often. That word was just as common as any other. Something we’d say without really realizing we were being a–holes. The guy you spoke to, though, he knew. And I have friends and family just like him. Good people who say and believe boneheaded things. Do you think that will ever change? I don’t. We’ll all just have to get along without them.

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    • Jim McKeever says:

      Thank you for that, Rachel … when I was growing up, ethnic jokes and insults were common, and I know that a lot of people in my lily-white suburban neighborhood had thoughts about race that weren’t so nice. The anti-German and anti-Japanese views were a holdover from WW II. (There was a lot of religious animosity as well — Catholics looked down on Protestants, didn’t trust Jews, etc.) I think a lot of us have come to our senses on this topic, but unfortunately it’s still a huge problem. The lawn mower guy was roughly my age, certainly old enough to know better. I would love to hear the perspective of African-Americans on this.

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  2. I really like that, especially the title. There are expressions we use commonly without giving a thought to where they come from such as jerry-rigged. I think these expressions are so removed from any original content that they become just an expression. However, we are more aware of the impact and context in which other words have been and still are being used and we choose not to use them because of that awareness. The guy in the pick-up trick, as you say, was aware, and he was inviting you to collude with him, with a nod-and-a-wink, in an act of unspoken racism.
    I can understand your shock – casual racism, coming out of nowhere, how do you respond?
    Usually two days later you figure out the perfect come-back. but at the time you are left reeling with shock and guilt that someone else thought that they could say that to you and it would be ok, because we’re both part of the same club. I think I too would be too stunned for words.
    I think though, your title is perfect and I shall adapt that the next time some one says to me “But you can’t say that” I shall respond with “Yes you can, if you’re racist”. Thanks Jim, a thought-provoking post . Roy

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    • Jim McKeever says:

      Roy, you summed up my thinking perfectly. The nod-and-the-wink especially frosted me, and you’re right, who the heck expects a comment like that out of nowhere? But I take some responsibility, since I opened the door with a phrase that I shouldn’t have used — even if it is from another era and probably not considered as insulting as it used to be. It might take a while for this encounter to stop bugging me … and I’m going to have my antennae up at all times for similar examples of insensitivity. Wish I didn’t have to, though.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve never heard any-word-rigged Jim. When I was reading your post and you said Jerry-rigged, I wondered if it was a reference to Germans (see, my parents are German) I figured what an odd expression if it were, because Germans are stereotypically quite precise. 🙂

    There are so many expressions I say without giving a 2nd thought to what it means, or if it offends a specific demographic. This post has caused me to reflect on this – thanks for sharing your story! ❤
    Diana xo

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  4. Jim McKeever says:

    Thank you, Diana … there are different stories about the origin of the term, and there’s also the term “jury rigged,” which has nautical origins. The WW II tale is that Allied soldiers would advance on the German positions and find equipment, weapons, etc. that had been hastily repaired (understandable, given the situation). Nationalism being what it is, I guess our soldiers came up with that expression as a way to belittle the enemy. My dad was in the Army (no combat, but he did guard German prisoners), so I was exposed to some of that growing up. Jim

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  5. I don’t recall ever hearing the “n” word growing up, and I mean “ever”. The first time I heard it was in reference to being ‘rigged’. As naive as that sounds….it didn’t take on the negative connotation to me until I later learned what the ‘n’ word actually was. I didn’t grow up hearing racist, or for that matter, equality, talk. Either I was completely naive and unaware, or I was completely sheltered. But I know I didn’t grow up hating……so there’s that.

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  6. markbialczak says:

    I unfortunately can bring up that use of the slur from the depths of my sorry past. Hearing, not using, Jim. Fortunately, I had the upbringing where it always gave me bad feelings. Unfortunately, I’d call the I-fixed lawn mower with the same term as you without a second thought. I, with German standing as one-quarter of my ancestry. So much crap in over the years, only so much thinking done about it. Great post, my friend. People never cease to surprise me, both good and not-so.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. chmjr2 says:

    The things we say without knowing the history behind them. I have used the term jerry rigged many times and cannot think of another expression that would convey the meaning as well. Should I stop using the expression? Or are we becoming too politely correct? Is that a possibility? On the other hand words have power great power at times. I have seen people hurt as if struck by words. But where do these words get that type of power? From us and our deepest hatreds and fears. I have long ago ceased to give words that type of power over me. I have so many other things to worry about. But I still must be aware that I still wield a powerful weapon over other people and must act responsibly. It is where to draw that line that gives us the trouble.

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    • Jim McKeever says:

      Thanks, Charles … I guess I’d like to hear from someone of German ancestry as to whether that’s considered offensive. There are so many loaded words and phrases, you are right. Some of them can get us in trouble, even if we didn’t mean anything. For instance, a female colleague yesterday used “rule of thumb.” If you’re interested, look up the origin of that phrase. I’m sure my colleague is unaware of the origin, or perhaps it’s not a big deal to her. I don’t want to get overly “PC” either, but it does depend on the person/group that is the subject of the word or phrase. Does it bother them? Is their view common, or rare/extreme/overly sensitive? I suppose if we offend someone unintentionally, we can apologize. It’s the intentional offenders that bother me. Jim

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  8. Angie Mc says:

    Jim, for years I helped manage an online message board, starting over 10 years ago that attracted followers from many English speaking countries. It was a sweet gathering, helping moms to teach their kids, and well, I learned the hard way that there are an *endless* amount of slurs and slights out there even beyond race. American slang would insult the English who would then insult the Australian who would then… So I got into the habit of “checking” my own slang! The worst was a term that my *grandmother* used which ended up meaning something vulgar in a different setting! Anyway, don’t beat yourself up. You are a kind and classy guy and it shows through your behavior. As for the other guy? Kind and classy isn’t coming to mind 😦

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jim McKeever says:

      Thank you, Angie … I think I’ve been able to let it go over the past couple of weeks. But my antennae will be working overtime in similar situations from now on.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Angie Mc says:

        I’m with you, Jim. Since making a few communication stumbles online, I’m quicker to catch a possible offense. But, in person, I’m not as quick on my feet. I really appreciate your desire and efforts to do what’s right.

        Liked by 1 person

  9. Don says:

    Living in South Africa one has to have as you describe, “your antennae working overtime.” Personally I have no problem with that, although it’s not always easy.There are so many offensive things said without any thought. Learning and being attuned or sensitive to these things, as well as courageously dealing with them when they raise their ugly heads, is a profound act of decency and responsibility. Thoroughly enjoyed your post Jim.

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  10. cat9984 says:

    I feel like a twit. I always thought it was jury-rigged. A slur against the system not a group of people. On second thought, mine is kind of an insult to the person doing the rigging.

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