Sunday, December 11, 2011

When a spade is not a shovel

from the 11th Hour
My first dissertation chair, Glenda Russell, had a thing about words. She loved them. That was for sure. She also was very interested in the imagery and meanings that were embedded deep within the words. A casual mention once about "black ice" brought us into a long conversation about how many things in our culture that are considered negative or bad utilize dark or black as descriptive words--and how deeply that is often intertwined with overt (or covert) racism. Another time, when I suggested we don't skirt around an issue, a conversation was launched about my un-examined sexism.

Sometimes, it was a bit much. Most of the time, however, it helped me think very deeply about how my choice of language can sometimes reinforce imagery, ideas, and ideologies that I'm not interested in reinforcing.

I found myself channeling Glenda this week. A friend of mine tweeted that we have more serious problems in this world when we can't call a spade a spade. I said we have more serious problems in this world when we forget that a spade isn't always a shovel. Unless of course you actually are referring to a shovel.

What is a spade? There is the common meaning of the word spade--a shovel one uses to dig. It is also a suit found in a deck of playing cards. Then there is the other meaning of spade--a derogatory name for a person who is black. I learned early on--likely from one of my parents--that the phrase "let's call a spade a spade" is a racist phrase I shouldn't use. I really haven't thought much about the term until I came across it on Twitter.

How did this phrase come to have racist meanings? First a word about where the phrase actually came from.

Apparently this phrase harkens back to ancient Greece. It didn't have racist undertones then. The phrase started out in Aristophanes' play "The Clouds." In that play was the line "to call a fig a fig, a trough a trough." The suggestion here was to speak plainly and frankly. As the ancient Greek has been translated from one language to another there was some confusion in the meaning of the words. Trough was eventually translated into spade (meaning a shovel).

So to call a spade a spade really has nothing at all to do with an ethnic slur.

What about the word spade. Can it be racist?

Apparently it can. The word got its racist meaning in United States. It seems that in the 1920s the spade on a playing card (which also has nothing to do with people) became a term for Black people in the United States. The term stuck. It's unclear to me exactly how and why that happened. It did however. Take a peek at the following two images found with a simple Google search.

Race Card
Race Card II
So these two images, are they making reference to a card game, a kind of shovel, or something else? The racism is obvious to me, as is the play on the racist meaning of the word spade. There are reasons that the image of our president, Barack Obama, is on these two cards--both spades: it draws upon deeply held racist imagery.

In writing this, I came across a blog that had a wonderful post about how we often obfuscate our racism by calling it "just a joke." Read the post: it's worth it. The images in the post are great examples of how various imagery of racism is used to deliver multiple points (sometimes while held under the guise of a "joke"). I debated for awhile whether I wanted to include the images from the blog post here. In the end, I decided that I want to. They are important to see and think about.

So back to the phrase "let's call a spade a spade." The phrase itself isn't racist. At least, when taken at face value, with full knowledge about where the phrase comes from, and where other meanings of the word spade come from, the idiom isn't racist. But is it?

Words and phrases grow and evolve. Here in the United States the racist meanings of the word spade have become intertwined with the idiom "let's call a spade a spade." While the phrase isn't likely to be commonly used with racist intentions, I don't think we can escape the other racist meanings of the word spade. The imagery of the word can quickly telegraph intentional (or unintentional) racist beliefs.

It's not worth it for me. Words matter to me. Within the imagery and complicated meanings of words, we find our self of identity. Within and through the words, we create our understandings of the world. I choose hard to pick words and phrases that don't replicate racism.

I hope you choose to do the same.


  1. I refuse to avoid the use of a perfectly functional word. It is not inherently vulgar or offensive. By avoiding its use, I would be reinforcing the migration of meaning and religating a prefectly acceptable word to disuse and obscurity. Where does one draw the line? If everyone choose to avoid words that some body somewhere used to convey a subtextual negative meaning sooner or later every word in the English language would be taboo.

    1. What I think is important here is that we all think about why we choose to or choose not to use words. There is intention in our word choice whether or not we elect to address. Many, for example, do not use profanity because they feel it is uncivil.

      I attempt to not use words that make racist allusions because I wish to create a world that is less racist.