Aware of my words

It slipped from my mouth as quickly as we breath. Words that are offensive and words I know better than to use. No one seemed to notice for it was busy and there were many conversations happening at the same time. But I noticed and those words have stayed with me for a few days now. My white privilege and racist words tumbled out. The phrases I learned or heard as a child and now I repeated them when I know better.

Our upbringing, our childhood experiences stay deep within us. Those events, the language and emotions are what make us who we are as adults. They at times direct our thinking and actions. They do not determine our lives but they influences us in ways we do not always expect.

Here is the setting – we were in a small gathering of family and friends. This group is part of our “pod.” We know each other well and feel we are safe to gather inside. So the yearly tradition of making applesauce happened this weekend. There were five of us working in the kitchen. One of the five of us was “Little Man”, my grandson who is sixteen months old. Well almost – give him another week and a half.

We were busy chatting plus pealing, coring, slicing apples. We were cooking and blending apples. Lots and lots of apples were everywhere. The smell of apples and cinnamon filling the air as much as our words. We have all been more isolated than we want so in this time together we had all let down and relaxed. You can image the noise, the laughter and craziness that was ensuing as we worked and Little Man was in the middle of it all- Helping.

His job was to pick up the cut up apples and drop them in the bowl but as to be expected he was putting more in his mouth. He was having a great time and up to playing games and tricks. He was playing peek a boo around the bowls of cut up apples to the folks on the other side of the kitchen island. He was yelling apple, apple, apple in great excitement and trying his best to take the small knife from his mother to help with cutting.

He was also offering pieces of apple to each of us to eat. This is his favorite game. He loves to offer food, toys or whatever he has with a great smile and then just as you begin to take it he grabs it back. (if it is food he pops it in his mouth and eats it) He loves the surprised look on the person’s face. He laughs and all those around him laugh as well. It is great fun!

So this little game began when one of the adults was given a piece of apple and was excited that Little Man was now playing with them. They were greatly surprised when he pulled the apple back and popped it in his mouth.

That is when I slipped and used that derogatory colloquialism – “he is an Indian Giver.”

I stopped short and was amazed at what I said and was embarrassed. The rest of the group must not of heard it for the conversation continued and the adult, Little Man and his mom headed out of the kitchen their backs to me busy with taking a shoe out of the dogs mouth.

I am glad they did not hear but I was startled that after so many years of working in diverse settings, reading, taking classes and workshops about racism I still let words from my childhood slipped into the air. I am grateful it was in this setting but still.

I decided to learn a bit more about this phrase. Where did it come from and how did it come to be part of the colloquialisms that is used in our country?

I found a couple blogs from 2013 that give a quick history of how it may have come from a misunderstanding of cultures – the Native American costume of giving gifts and the European settlers lack of knowledge about bartering and gift giving in the Native Culture.

You can read more about these thoughts here – https://www.ictinc.ca/blog/indian-giver-come-can-give-back and here –https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2013/09/02/217295339/the-history-behind-the-phrase-dont-be-an-indian-giver#:~:text=The%20concept%20of%20an%20%22Indian,an%20equivalent%20return%20is%20expected.%22

All of this began back in late 1700’s or early 1800’s and yet that offensive phrase is still with us today. I am sure I am not the only one who has found this or other equally awful phrases still in use.

For me it was a powerful reminder of the staying power of words and how in simple settings we can teach children in ways we do not want to. I am sure no one in my childhood taught me this phrase but I am also sure it was used by adults and children around me in unthinking ways. It became part of my usable language and still resides in my brain ready for use if I am not careful.

It is a reminder that we often use language too casually and without paying attention to the real meaning behind the words. We do not always think about how our words might impacted others around us or what the history is of certain phrases.

It does mean I will be watching my words more carefully around Little Man. Well, around everyone one. I do not wish to continue to bring these phrases forward into our future. It is long past time for our language to change to more inclusive and supportive words for all people.

About Joanne Toft

I am a retired Minneapolis Public School teacher. I walk, garden, help in schools and write. Life is good!
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3 Responses to Aware of my words

  1. I remember people using this phrase when I was a kid. It wasn’t until I was a young adult that I realized how horrible it was. If I had said that aloud, I would have reacted as you did. You are so mindful of your words. The fact that you slipped and self-corrected matters. That kind of awareness is what we are all striving for. None of us are perfect.

    Glad you have a pod with whom you can gather! That’s everything!

  2. Lakshmi Bhat says:

    Yes phrases like that are present in all languages and I too am very careful about it. Thank you for sharing and your grandson is very sweet. We wish him happiness in life.

  3. Ramona says:

    Love your willingness to admit and share your words. We all need to seek as you do for more inclusive and supportive words. I’m jealous that you were able to gather and make applesauce. Our pod is just us and daughter’s family. So glad they’re here. Occasionally I meet masked and outside with friends. Worried that with colder and wetter weather on the horizon that our gatherings will be less frequent.

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