What’s the Deal with Political Correctness?

Kazuo Shiraga. Untitled (1972)

By Olga Shafran

Americans sometimes tell me that I’m blunt. Occasionally when I voice my opinion in a meeting people giggle nervously and later come up to me to thank me for my comment in private. I’ve heard similar stories from other Russian-speaking Americans. Usually, these stories are met with eye rolls. Russian-speaking Americans themselves do not think they are blunt. They think other Americans are just way too indirect or too sensitive or too politically correct.

Political correctness is not a term that existed in the Soviet Union. When I was growing up, everyone was still afraid to say the wrong thing or say it to the wrong person when it came to criticizing the government or the way of life. However, no one thought twice about being rude or offensive to the person they were addressing. And I vividly remember babushki sitting on benches outside of every apartment building gossiping about all their neighbors in less than complimentary terms.

When I came to America and started learning English, I quickly realized that I need to build more politeness into my way of speaking. For example, in Russian I might say, “Give me some cereal, please,” but in English I needed to say, “May I please have some cereal?” Learning which words might offend people took longer. For example, Russian-speaking senior citizens, who largely lived in subsidized housing in Chicago, had to adjust their Russian term describing African-American or other Black people. In Russian the term is “негр,” which comes from the same root and therefore sounds just like “negro.” Russian-speaking Americans hardly ever use that term anymore. They mostly just say “черный,” Russian for “black.”

Russian-speaking Americans have learned to hide their deep-seated racism when speaking English, but it is almost always assumed when they speak to other Russian-speakers that it’s ok to let their racism shine bright. If you can’t say anything nice, say it in Russian.

For example, let’s say that you want to criticize President Obama. In English you might say, “he didn’t accomplish anything as President.” In Russian, to a Russian-speaking audience, just to be more direct, how about “For the last 8 years our President was a dark-skinned guy (the very reason he was President) who, based on his knowledge and experience, couldn’t even be trusted to dust the desk in the Oval Office, much less lead America,” a quote I read in a letter to the editor in a Russian newspaper this week. Or maybe you say, “I don’t get involved in politics, but at least the White House can be white again,” something I was told by a service provider. Most examples aren’t perhaps that blatant, but in every case the speaker or writer, if accused of being racist, would vehemently deny it. They aren’t being racist, they claim; they’re just not being politically correct, and political correctness is for sissies.

Here’s a comment from a member of my community on Facebook: “I wish Black on Black [crime] would stop… I wish there was not more Black criminals, than all other races. I wish there were more complete homes in Black communities. I wish more Black youth would go to school and graduate and go to college and get a degree… I wish less Black people were depending on welfare and sit on it just because they can. I wish less youth would act stupid and riot, and break things, and steal from stores that are closed because a hurricane came through… I wish all people had manners and believed in decency. But wishing things, doesn’t make it so!!!!!” In his mind he’s calling it like it is. Just being blunt. He can’t help it if the truth hurts. Racists are bad people, and he does not see himself as a bad person, therefore he doesn’t see himself as racist, just not politically correct.

I might be blunt by American standards. It is true that I wish people were more direct in expressing what they are actually thinking. I don’t like having to guess if the smile I’m seeing is fake. I don’t like when people ask me how I am without wanting to hear an actual answer. But I find myself apologizing on behalf of my community regularly.

So let me put this bluntly. Enough. Most of us have been in the US for 20-30 years. It is time we understand the history of this country. Sure, America had a racism problem long before we got here. But it has not yet ended. Refusing to understand this is not just politically incorrect, it’s willfully ignorant. Those of us who are Jewish refugees from the former Soviet Union experienced institutionalized and everyday prejudice firsthand. We should be the first to speak out against it. Even if we are not the ones on the receiving end anymore.

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