The Important Questions.

I am a secular humanist, a non-believer, an atheist…any of these terms can work and I use them in different ways in different settings. Because of this and the resulting awareness of how prevalent Christian language is, I choose to say, “Happy Holidays” when I’m talking to people in public and I have never EVER had anyone challenge me on that. But, I am aware that my decision to say, “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” ruffles the random set of feathers. No one I know has ever told me that, and no one in public has ever told me that, so I don’t think it’s that prevalent…but I do know the existence of people who feel like we are removing the “reason for the season” when we say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.”

I tell you this to say: I make a deliberate choice to use words that I am aware make other people unhappy.

Now, I have played it in my head how a challenge would work if I ever did meet the probably VERY VERY VERY rare challenger. I would explain I’m not a believer and so I’m aware that not everyone celebrates Christian traditions or holidays and so I’m trying to be conscious of people who do not celebrate Christmas. But this has never happened to me. And honestly, it probably never will. I am definitely of the school of thought that challenges like this get blown out of proportion thanks to social media.

In summary: I have spent time considering the possibility that someone will be upset by my word choice and I did not change my word choice. I kept it with the knowledge that I may have to defend that word choice some day. I will not challenge their right to be upset, but I have accepted the repercussions of their distaste and feel comfortable that anyone that would think me “the problem” in that situation is probably not someone whose opinions I truly care about. Just like people who believe that “removing prayer from schools is the problem with our world today” – I differ from them on too many fundamental levels to be worried that I am alienating someone who could be a good friend. If they take true offense at my decision to use the term “Happy Holidays” then we were not meant to be friends. 

Now, all of that said. There are dozens of other adaptations I’ve made to my language and behavior after learning it upsets groups of people. 

  1. Stopped using word “retarded” casually (My kids are mortified I used to do that)
  2. Never used the word “gay” in a perjorative manner
  3. Never displayed a rebel confederate flag (I have NO IDEA why I called it a rebel flag. Thank you F. for pointing out that error. Jeez.)
  4. Never used cotton in decor or family photos
  5. I try not to cuss around people I don’t know because they may find it offensive
  6. I’m trying to only use the phrasing, “It’s making me crazy/insane,” if I mean it literally. This is a new adjustment and I falter often but I am trying.

Just like with the “Happy Holidays” situation, in each of the above situations that required adaptations I have asked myself:

  • Will this offend anyone?
  • Who does this offend?
  • Is that a group of people I’m willing to blanketly offend? Is there a chance I could be missing out on good relationships by offending this group as a whole?
  • Is my attachment to this word or behavior more important than the relationships I might be jeopardizing by keeping this language or behavior?

In those responses with the “Happy Holidays” langauge I’ve accepted that my attachment to using “Happy Holidays” is strong enough that I’m okay with jeopardizing any relationship with someone who might be offended. But in NO OTHER SITUATION do I care enough to keep or adopt the language or behavior.

One of these is being more and more frequently discussed around my neck of the woods: Cotton in decor and cotton fields as a setting for family photos.

My family checking out the feel of a bin of cotton at a farm back in the year of the belt phone, evidently.

VERY IMPORTANT NOTE: There’s a lot of debate in the recent months about using cotton in family photos and decor and that’s what I’m about to discuss. HOWEVER – my nervousness about discussing this is why I started this blog post out with an entirely different subject. Truth: I am very UNAWARE of cotton. I have no idea if I have friend or family who decorate with it so I have no idea if the rest of this blog post is going to upset people. But I’ve been thinking about it a lot after I saw two black friends discussing their distaste for it on Facebook. So if you and I are related or friends and you have cotton in your home, please know I am not thinking of you right now. I am truly blind to it because it seems to be everywhere so no part of me keeps a list of friends or family who have it in their home or who have done family photos with it. I PROMISE.


Okay…back to the entry.

The only person I ever knew to discuss personally harvesting cotton did so in a family of white sharecroppers and she spoke of it with misery and pain. It’s itchy in a field so it seemed like a terrible location for family photos. And I don’t find it that pretty so I never considered using it in decor. To me it was always something interesting to check out at the pumpkin patch but it was never on my radar for anything else. All of this means – FOR ONCE IN MY LIFE – I was on the right side of the problem when things like this started being spotlighted. I am usually the one who is DOING THE OFFENSIVE THING because I am so wrapped up in white privilege I rarely think about other perspectives. But, I hope that if I had been someone who decorated with cotton I would have asked myself those questions above and then decided my affection for it wasn’t worth upsetting any friends who may come from a line of slaves for whom raw cotton is a painful reminder of a terrible family history.

Now, I do know a lot of people who have used it in decoration and family photos, and until recently, many (like me) never sat down and thought about it. I know this – not because I’ve seen it in their house or in their photos (remember: UNAWARE) – but because have seen several people recently say something like: “Oh my god. I’m so embarrassed. I’ve never really considered how that must look as decoration to someone who is descended from slavery.”  If you are one of those people? Welcome to the club. This is the speech I give to new members: “Dude. I feel ya. I had to be told by someone whose sister had down syndrome to stop using the r-word casually. NO ONE IS MORE EMBARRASSED THAN I AM.”

But others I think are avoiding asking themselves those questions. There seems to be a defensive move a lot of people make when challenged. The, “I WILL NOT CAVE TO PC CULTURE! I SAY WHAT I WANT! WE ARE CREATING A GENERATION OF SNOWFLAKES! ARRRRRRGGGHGHHHHH!”

I find this response bothersome simply because: What is the harm in asking yourself those questions? What is the harm in sitting down and considering they way your language or behavior may affect other people?

Now, I have also seen a strange middle group who – in lieu of asking themselves the questions – have taken the word of someone descended from slavery who says, “It’s not a big deal.” And, well, to those people I would encourage you to survey the crowd a bit more and read a bit more. The conversation I witnessed that prompted this blog post was two black women in my friend circle discussing it on Facebook and both admitting to each other (but just in their own comment thread, not to the masses of their FB friend or followers) how weird they think it is.  Obviously, if you’re a minority, you might not love to broadcast your distaste of something the majority is doing, so be careful in letting yourself off the hook just because your black friends aren’t broadcasting their distaste. 

I read a good article about it and it had this to say:

Cotton represents the product of a system that required slave labor to function. More recently, perpetrators of racial intimidation have used cotton as a symbol of their hatred. Before white robes became the uniform, some KKK members wore ceremonial hornsstuffed with cotton. Two white men seeking to intimidate and unsettle members of the University of Missouri’s Black Culture Center littered the front lawn of the Center with cotton balls. The word even fills the mouths of students who bully their black peers by calling them “cotton pickers.”

Jasmine Gales, a black woman and social activist in Nashville, explains how this context translates into the contemporary mindset of many people of color:

“Black people’s association with the cotton plant is an obvious one of trauma and suffering,” she wrote for The Tennessean. “In being culturally sensitive to the history of African-Americans which includes slavery and the free labor of cotton harvesting, an institution wouldn’t choose to display it at a dinner meant to uplift the black experience.”

The individuals who reacted defensively or dismissively to the cotton complaints either ignored this context or were ignorant of it entirely. If there wasn’t an explicitly racist motive behind the design choice, they reasoned, then it wasn’t a problem.

Neither perception reflects an absolute truth. But the chorus of naysayers trying to drown out the voices of two black women reflects a power dynamic that must inform a culturally responsive interpretation.

Teaching Tolerance – When Decor Is More Than Decor

I actually prefer the people who have asked themselves those questions and they have decided their affection for it – and the history it represents in a family where cotton harvesting or sharecropping is remember more kindly – is worth the potential of jeopardizing any relationships with people who may have darker reactions to it. I mean, at least they’re willing to go through the process and end strongly on the, “I don’t care if it upsets anyone who descends from slavery. I still love it.” 

Because we all make changes to our language and behavior for the benefit of others and anyone who tells they NEVER have either A) doesn’t spend a lot of time analyzing their motivations so they maybe don’t realize that they don’t cuss as often around their great-aunt as they do the girls from work or B) is a terrible person.

I feel comfortable saying that. I’ve asked myself the important questions and have decided that calling someone who REFUSES to EVER change language or behavior a terrible person is something I believe strongly enough to risk any future relationships with those people.

Anyway – this is just another REALLY long-winded and REALLY wordy post where I’m trying to diffuse the defensive reactions I’m seeing and trying to point out that this whole “Anti-PC Culture” stance is bizarre because we ALL have asked ourselves those questions before, whether or not we realize it. When I introduced people to my aunt-the-nun, no matter how often they drop f-bombs on a normal basis, they didn’t in conversation with her.  My friends who hated Obama didn’t walk around saying, “FUCK OBAMA!” around me even though they probably did around their more conservative friends. They also don’t hang, “LIBERAL SNOWFLAKES ARE CAUSING THE DOWNFALL OF AMERICA” signs in their home because they recognize that just because you feel some way about something, doesn’t mean you want to jeopardize potential relationships or alienating people by displaying it in such a manner. 

Ugg. It’s like I can stop trying to come at this in 100 different ways to try to keep people from being upset at this new topic. I’ll stop talking now. I’m not even going to reread this because every time I have, I’ve added another new paragraph or another new angle. This is me trying DESPERATELY not to upset people and jeopardize relationships with this post. I AM LIVING THE TRUTH OF WHICH I SPEAK.

9 Comments

  • Liz

    People use cotton to decorate? I’ve never seen it, never, but I’m originally from Chicago and now live in Texas. Maybe it just never registered, because it is ugly. Also, wow. If people are using it in family photos, it must be for the racist connotations, because why else put yourself in front of something ugly for a family photo? BTW: I come from a family of dairy farmers and we would never do a family photo in front of a herd–because cows can be rather smelly/ugly the majority of the time. I mean, I love cows, but, no. You aren’t taking pictures in the fields to honor your heritage, dudes. Gah.

  • Fraulein N

    I’m black, and I wasn’t even aware that people were using cotton as decor until this year. Is this a trend, or something that’s been going on for a while in the South? It’s an odd choice since, like you said, it’s not exactly “pretty.” So I have to believe there’s a deeper message there, even if people don’t/can’t own up to it. And if they choose to keep decorating or taking photos with it even AFTER being told about the deeper message, then people who understand the symbolism of that are definitely going to take it as a hateful act.

    Also, since we’re on the subject of language, it’s not really appropriate to call that a “rebel” flag since they were, you know, committing TREASON rather than doing something “rebellious” to be cool. I don’t think I knew that some people call it that until I was well into adulthood. It’s a Confederate flag. I know that YOU know that that flag is a symbol of a dark history of rape, murder, and treason, and that you weren’t implying that Confederates are cool or anything. But I also know that you know that words mean things, and I’m hoping you would want to be gently instructed on how to describe that flag properly.

    • Zoot

      When I read your comment I was thinking maybe the thing I quoted called it a rebel flag. NOPE. ALL ME. Obviously my innate language choices need some work.

      Secondly, yes, it’s DEFINITELY a southern thing. It’s in ALL of our crafts stores. It’s weird.

  • T.

    My mother-in-law is a painter and gave us one of her watercolors of cotton for Christmas. I feel obligated to hang it, but I also feel weird about it for all the reasons you outlined.

  • Rebecca W

    I admit, when I read the title I thought “Cotton? Like cotton fabric? Who would have a problem with that?” So, thanks for the gentle and kind eduction! I guess decorating with raw cotton just isn’t a thing here in KS!

  • Beth Edwards

    I will start with the Happy Holidays discussion. When I was young it was common to say Happy Holidays and cards frequently said that. It was a short way to say Merry Christmas and Happy New year. I do prefer Merry Christmas, but Happy Holidays is fine and since there are so many off them in December and January, it is totally appropriate.

    As far as the cotton discussion, I wonder if this is one of those issues is white people projecting what they think should offend blacks. I am sure that there are blacks that do find this offensive and a reminder of the suffering of their ancestors I remember cotton used in decoration of my Grandmothers house, in New York. It was there simply because it was very unusual. Do I have cotton in my house, yes. Displayed- no. Its in the plaque that my husband got years ago for placing in his age group at Cotton Row Run . I am wondering something- how about wearing cotton garments? Will I use cotton in my decoration- no. As far as the pictures in front of the fields, or in them. In order to see the open blossoms, the plant has to be dead. Who wants a picture in front of dead plants. To kill the plants quicker so the cotton can be harvested, they are sprayed with herbicide. Having a family stand in a field of plants sprayed with herbicide is not my idea of safe

  • Mommyattorney

    My grandparents were sharecroppers. They chopped and picked cotton. My grandmother had to miss weeks of school during harvest season. I’m white. I honor their legacy of extremely hard work that helped get my family where it is today. I use cotton decorations and it never once occurred to me to feel badly about that. It if part of my personal legacy.

  • Karen

    I find a field of cotton very beautiful to look at. I grew up in SE Missouri, where there is still a “Cotton Carnival” every year (beauty pageants, carnival rides, midway games, and a parade). My mom and her family all chopped cotton at one time or another in their lives. I was made aware of a viral photo this weekend of a white couple with their adopted black daughter taken in a cotton field. I am acquainted with the couple and don’t believe they are deserving of the insulting remarks made about them. I appreciate you trying to see all angles of the situation. I wish more folks could disagree without feeling the need to attack, belittle, or shame someone with a different opinion.