Sunday, December 14, 2014

M-Word Backlash

Years ago, after former Chicago Bears Defensive Coordinator went to the Carolina Panthers as Head Coach, he referred to Rex Grossman, the Bear's quarterback, as a midget. The alleged comment received a lot of media attention, and the comment was recognized as an insult. I wrote a response to the Chicago Sun-Times, which published the letter. As far as I remember though, and from all that I can find now on the internet, non of the media attention referenced the impact of the comment on the dwarfism community.

This year, another NFL Football Coach used the m-word. Again, it was used in reference to a quarterback. Marvin Lewis is the coach for the Cincinnati Bengals. The Bengals play the Cleveland Browns today, (December 14). Earlier this week, when asked how the team would prepare for the Browns' quarterback, Lewis said, "You've got to go defend the offense. You don't defend the player, particularly a midget."

At least seven years passed between the time Rivera made his comment, and when Lewis used the m-word. In that time, many efforts have been made to raise awareness about dwarfism and language. Little People of America launched a Dwarfism Awareness Month. More reality programs that feature the lives of everyday dwarfs have been introduced on television. Peter Dinklage has won an Emmy and a Golden Globe.

If the response to Lewis' m-word comment is any indication, that awareness has made a difference. There was immediate reaction to Lewis' use of the m-word. With the internet and with social media, the speed of the response is not a surprise. What is a surprise, at least in my opinion, is the content of the response. Some critics commented about not just the impact that the slur would have on Manziel, the Cleveland Quarterback, and the Browns. They also pointed out the impact the slur would have on the dwarfism community.

Over Twitter, Michael David Smith, the Managing Editor of Pro Football Talk, wrote, "Many people of short stature consider "midget" a slur. Marvin Lewis shouldn't say it. Neither should the rest of us." On the ESPN Radio Show, "Highly Questionable," someone said, "if the public does not perceive the M-word as a slur, it's because they don't know any lps."

Smith didn't stop with his original comment. Soon after he used the m-word, Lewis issued an apology. Primarily, Lewis apologized to Johnny Manziel. Smith didn't think the apology covered everyone. He expected more. In a column titled, "Marvin Lewis' apology is Lacking," Smith wrote, "Lewis failed to mention people of short stature, the people who, by extension, Lewis was really insulting."

Soon enough, Lewis issued a second apology. In that apology, he extended his regret to "all others I have offended." 'All others' is kind of vague, but earlier in his comments, Lewis said that he had studied the Little People of America website. With that in mind, it's easy to infer that Lewis intended to include people with dwarfism in his apology. After the second statement from Lewis, several other outlets mentioned the Little People of America website, including the New York Times.

All in all, a week that started with a high profile football coach using the mword ended up all right for the dwarfism community. The media rallied in support of the community, and that same coach, not to mention one of the most high profile newspapers in the world, mentioned the LPA Website. If I were to give out a game ball, it would go to Michael David Smith. He was out in front of the pack, holding Lewis accountable when the coach made the disparaging remark, and Smith didn't let up until Lewis apologized to people with dwarfism.

To Smith -- Many Thanks.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Words that Bind

Over Thanksgiving break, I finished the book Men We Reaped, a memoir by Jesmym Ward.  Over a span of several years, from 2000 to 2004, five men Ward knew, including her brother, died.  The chapters of the book follow the deaths of all five men, in reverse chronological order, and retrace the steps of Ward's life growing up in southern Mississippi.  The two timelines converge on the death of Ward's brother in 2000.  Her brother Joshua's death was the first of the five.  The memoir is about five individuals, and the grief that follows in the wake of each death, and the book is about systemic racism and poverty that is endemic to African Americans in southern Mississippi and that harnesses the men in Ward's life on a path toward death.

Men We Reaped was the second book by Ward that I have read in the past three years.  I finished Salvage the Bones in September of 2012.  I finished the book on a plane between Columbus, Ohio and Chicago.  While I read Salvage the Bones, I struggled to make a connection.  But on the plane, as I read the final scenes, which climax as Hurricane Katrina blasts the Mississippi coast, I lost my breath and started to cry.

It takes me about two months to read a book.  That means, I've probably read 13 other books since September of 2012.  No other book has stayed with me like Salvage the Bones.

Men We Reaped had a similar impact.  From page one, I enjoyed the book, but not the same way other readers     did.  On Twitter, I read about a woman who didn't put the book down after starting on page one, reading the entire book in 12 hours.  I put the book down every night. For me, the book followed the typical two month pattern. Eventually, the book bowled me over, and left an impression I can't shake.  The impression is particularly deep because of what is happening in Ferguson, Missouri, and the failure of the Grand Jury to indict the police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown, the unarmed African American teenager.

For me, the book transformed on page 187, when Ward, an underclassmen at a high school where she is one of barely a handful of black students, stands up to a group of male upperclassmen.  Out of earshot, the boys had made a joke about lynching black people.  Ward, though she didn't hear what they said, knows they are laughing at her.
       "What did you say," she asks them.
       One of the boys laughed, saying, "you know what we do to your kind."
       "No I don't," Ward said.
       The group laughed at her.
       At this point, Ward knows about what they are joking.  But she says to them, "You ain't going to do shit to me."
       The demeanor within the group of boys changed.  They stopped laughing.  They changed their posses, folding their arms, positioning themselves defensively.  Ward, hiding fear, said, "you ain't going to do nothing."
      Moments later the group of boys moved on down the hall.

As a person with dwarfism, my experience is different from that of a poor African American girl going to school with mostly white people who are wealthy and racist.  But as a person who has faced bigotry, I can relate to the experience of facing a hostile crowd and staring it down, picking one person in the crowd and focusing on that person, daring that person to translate their verbal assault into physical action.

Ward spoke at the Harold Washington Library in Chicago on
November 1. 
I know my experience as a dwarf is different from that of an African American because I've never been hurt because of my physical difference the way so many people have been hurt and killed because of the color of their skin.  Perhaps, I feel confident that I never will be hurt, and that is why I can sometimes challenge those who verbally assault me.  I am sure many other people can't do that.  They probably would be physically hurt.  Ward knew she was risking her safety.

Though our experiences may be different, after page 187 in Men Who Reaped, I felt connected to Ward in a small way.  Because of that, Ward has become my favorite writer.  Though I am devastated for her because of all that she has lost, I am grateful for what she has been able to share.