The Power and Danger of Words

I really didn’t want to make this blog political. And I still don’t. But I just had to weigh in on this Tiger Woods lynching thing.

For those of you not in the know, two commentators on the Golf Channel were discussing how hard it is to bring down Tiger Woods because he’s so good. They began joking that the only way to beat him would be to get him out of the way by beating him literally. The female commentator, Kelly Tilghman, then continued by saying “Lynch him in a back alley.”

This has caused great uproar in the Black community, with Al Sharpton calling for her to be fired:

“Lynching is not murder in general, it’s not assault in general. It’s a specific racial term that this woman should be held accountable for. What she said is racist. Whether she’s a racist … is immaterial. She’s a broadcaster. The channel has to be accountable to the public.”

I was a tad surprised to read this. Surprised because as far as I knew and as far as the dictionary says, lynching is a general term. Despite being an act that many White people used to dispose of Black people in times of yore, it is not in itself a “racist” term; many Black people have taken it as such, and depending on the context, it may well be that. I don’t think it applies so clearly here. Lynching is something that can happen to anyone, anywhere. If a whole bunch of men showed up at my house right now and hung me, that’s a lynching, even if they are from the same racial background. According to my trusty Merriam-Webster,

lynch: to put to death (as by hanging) by mob action without legal sanction.

The atrocity has been committed against Black people and Jewish people with such frequent fervor that lynching has been classified as a hate crime in the United States. But, I really had to wonder: does this mean that any time the word in used in connection to a person of color or particular religious background, that it then denotes a racist act?

What I really mean to say here, to be frank, is that I think this is all bullshit.

I can go into all kinds of theories about the layers of the words and the people in question. Tiger Woods is, by his own definition, Cablinasian, a word he devised to include all of his racial inheritances. Despite repeatedly being identified as a Black person in a world that insists on placing people into neatly labeled boxes, he refuses to fully take on that mantle without having his other “identities” included – something I completely identify with, and something that has upset the Black fundamentalists, as I call them, to no end. Kelly Tilghman is a White woman. She has also been good friends with Tiger for 12 years. So there are a few questions that could arise here:

  • Did she subconsciously use a term that, while not in itself racial, has racial sensitivities, or was she completely oblivious to the connotations?
  • Did her long-standing friendship with Tiger, coupled perhaps with Tiger’s own refusal to adhere to labels, make her “forget” that he is in some part Black?

I read the comment and was not in the least bit offended or appalled. I read it as lynching in the mob sense, not lynching in the “hang Black people” sense. Now there are those who would say I’m blinding myself, or that I haven’t lived during a time in which that term – and act – was used so frequently as to make people immediately know that a racial component was implied. Whatever. I get all that. But I’m going to guess that Kelly Tilgman is not much older than I, perhaps is even younger. Whether or not she’s ever used or read the word outside of racial contexts I cannot say. But I highly doubt that she meant to be offensive, that she envisioned a mob hanging Tiger while shouting racial epithets, and I really think that calling for her to be fired is making way too much of this. But then, making too much of things is what that jackass Al Sharpton specializes in doing.

What kills me is, Tiger has already forgiven Tilghman, saying he knows her personally and knows that no offense was intended. He understood that she was using it in the context of a compliment, saying that the only way to beat him was to take him out.  Despite Tiger’s wish to move on, Sharpton is up in arms, calling for her firing, and the Golf Channel, which probably feels privately that the whole thing has been blown out of proportion, has suspended Tilghman for 2 weeks, most likely in the hopes that this will placate those Black people that insist on seeing this as yet another proof of the White Man’s (And Now Woman’s!) Inherent Racist Tendencies.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that there is no way that, somewhere in the depths of Tilgman’s subconscious, there aren’t some synapses that are linking the words Tiger and Black, and then Black and lynching, something that made the leap from Tiger to lynching and made those words leap out of her mouth before she could consciously think it out.   But I think that if that linking happened, that’s as far as it goes – and it’s not something we should be penalizing her for. At worst, it’s an unfortunate choice of words. One that perhaps someone could have brought up with her privately. Sharpton himself, were he a different sort, could take the high road and rather than calling for a firing, simply announce that the words were unfortunate and that he’d hope that people would understand the sensitive implication that word can have – not automatically has but can have – when connected with a person of color. But we all know that’s not his style, and unfortunately we’re all the worse for it, because instead of meaningful dialogues taking places there are rushes to judge, which are then met by rushed attempts to quiet the furor. And while these attempts to apologize and remedy the problem are admirable, I often have to wonder how much of it is driven by business sense rather than a real desire to heal a wound.

Because I have to think that, like me, many times people are left privately wondering why an act or set of words even opens a wound in the first place. I’m sure there’s a sense of “enough already” or “not again”. And it’s not that racism does not exist, believe you me I know it does. But if Black people insist on sensing that nuance every time certain words are used, without paying any regard to context, and then insist on responding with a hostility and anger that is not tempered to fit the actual event, then eventually it wears thin. And when something does happen that is truly offensive and does merit a serious response, it’s going to be The Boy Who Cried Wolf story.

No one is going to care.

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One Response to “The Power and Danger of Words”

  1. Audrey says:

    I think it was, as you said, at worst an unfortunate choice of words. , given the hair-trigger response that the word “lynching” evokes. Remember back when someone official used the word “niggardly” and people wanted him fired? The refusal to put words into context is going to continuously hamstring people.

    For me, it’s not about race—that race card is geting worn out!—but the violence. I find the direction the conversation went a bit disturbing, the idea of having to beat someone down physically to win at a sport, and while I know it was a joke—it is kind of indicative how we go there (to violence) as a society so quickly.