I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Language changes and evolves, and that’s a good thing.
Our language expands as we find new ways to express old concepts and ideas, and, frankly, new concepts and ideas that deserve expressing.
But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t draw the line somewhere. Words still need to mean things.
My personal pet peeve is the way people interchange “humbled” and “honored.” Those two things are opposites. “Humbled” for those who don’t know means “not proud or haughty; nor arrogant or assertive.”
If you point out my mistakes, I’m humbled and admit I did wrong. If you give me an award, I’m honored to receive recognition I never expected. You can humbly accept an award, i.e., in way that is not arrogant or assertive, but you really ought to let someone else say you’re being humble, or you’re really not.
But what really prompted this column was Forbes magazine’s cover story, published Wednesday. The cover of the magazine read “$900 million cosmetics queen Kylie Jenner: At 21, she’s set to be the youngest-ever self-made billionaire. Welcome to the era of extreme fame leverage.”
Excuse me, but not a single Kardashian-Jenner sibling is self-made.
As Dictionary.com pointed out on Twitter, “self-made” means “having succeeded in life unaided.” Jenner is the daughter of Caitlyn Jenner, a former Olympian, as well as a television and film star, and Kris Jenner, ex-wife of famous attorney Robert Kardashian. To put it bluntly, both of her parents are super rich. Kylie Jenner has been on the TV show “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” for nearly 11 years, making her a celebrity in her own right.
I’m not saying she didn’t put any work into growing her fortune, but she had the biggest head start imaginable. She grew up in a wealthy, famous family. It’s a lot easier to become a billionaire when you’ve got that kind of money, access and privilege to start with.
I tried to ignore it — if Forbes doesn’t know what “self-made” means, that’s not my problem — but then NBC News made what I consider a more serious transgression.
Reporting on the news that John H. Schnatter had resigned from the Papa John’s board after using the n-word on a conference call, the company tweeted that the founder of the company had admitted to a “racial remark.”
I’m going back to Dictionary.com’s Twitter, because I can’t say it any better. “Racial is an adjective meaning of or relating to the social construct of race. Racist is an adjective describing a belief that one’s own racial group is superior or that a particular racial group is inferior to the others. Use of the n-word is the latter.”
Lord knows, people will argue all day over what is racist, but the n-word is the one thing we all agree white people step over the line when they use.
The context does not make it any better, for the record. As reported in several news outlets, including NBC News and Forbes, Schnatter said “Colonel Sanders called blacks (n-words),” and that Sanders never faced criticism for it. He also said when he was growing up in Indiana, people dragged African-Americans from trucks until they died.
This was apparently in response to a question about how he’d distance himself and Papa John’s from online racists.
In an email to Forbes, Schnatter wrote, “News reports attributing the use of inappropriate and hurtful language to me during a media training session regarding race are true,” he said. “Regardless of the context, I apologize. Simply stated, racism has no place in our society.”
So even Schnatter can admit his actions were racist, but NBC News can’t use the correct word in the headline.
Whether people say they’re humbled or honored when they win an award doesn’t really matter. I should really let that go. But when it comes to concepts like being self-made or racist, we need to stand by those meanings.
When you use “self-made” to describe someone who had tons of help to get where they are today, you’re ignoring the truly immense value of that help.
Even worse, when you refuse to use the word “racist” to describe racism, you’re downplaying the seriousness of the offense, and these are things we need to take seriously if we’re ever going to address the serious problems we’re facing as a society.