What's In a Name Nowadays?

by Judith Katz-Schwartz

Dateline: 4/28/98

This is one of those issues on which ulcers are built. I'm not sure how I feel about it, ultimately. On the one hand, I am strongly in favor of historical accuracy. I think no one should take liberties with cold, hard fact. On the other hand, I also feel very strongly that anything we say or do that lessens the self esteem or quality of life for another human being is inexcusable. So, what to do with all those relics of less enlightened times, those items that depict things, or are called things that we now know is unacceptable? Do we alter history in favor of political correctness? Or do we forego consideration of people's feelings for the sake of accuracy?

Ethnic memorabilia has always been a staple of the collecting world. Here in the U.S. we've had everything from black memorabilia to Chinese memorabilia, Hispanic items to Dutch items. Some of these images have been endearing, and some of them have been, in light of today's sensibilties, offensive. We find these things appealing, on some level, for many different reasons, all of them personal.

Images that were socially acceptable a hundred or even fifty years ago, are now frowned upon, partially I think because our society has become more blended and less white-dominated (I've often wondered if, a hundred years ago in Asia, there were lots of little figurines of "round eyes"). But what should we do when writing about, speaking of or dealing in items from the past with names and images that are no longer considered acceptable in today's polite society?

A case in point is a mechanical bank that depicts an African American man with hand extended. A coin is placed in the hand, a lever is pressed, and the man flips the coin into his mouth, while rolling his eyes. The man's features are exaggerated: he has full lips and big, bright eyes. The name of this bank is "The Jolly N----r". Now, I've never called a person this word in my entire life, nor will I ever, mostly because it's just not in my lexicon, and it's not in my nature to make a judgment about a person based on a characteristic over which he has no control, i.e. the color of his skin. But, ten or fifteen years ago, I might have written out the name of the bank, because, well, that's the name of the bank. And Artie and I laugh out loud when we read auction ads that say they have for sale the "Jolly Black Man Bank". We laugh because we think it's silly to change the name of the item because a person could possibly use it as an epithet against another person. Because, in this context it is not an epithet. It's the name of a hunk of cast iron and paint. And saying the name of the bank is not the same as shouting the word at a person. We laugh because we think that saying the name of the bank does not make you a racist, and that whoever placed the ad is being ridiculous by making an issue of the name.

On the other hand, I wonder if my black friends (who have recently informed me that I should be calling them African Americans or People Of Color) cringe when they hear the name of that bank, and I plan to ask each and every one of them about it. Granted, these are my friends, and they know me well, so they're not likely to be offended at the question (just as I wouldn't be offended if they asked me if I cringe when someone tells me they "jewed a dealer down" - I do!), whereas they might be put off if they heard some stranger at an auction say, "Look! There's a Jolly N----r Bank!"

So, is it possible to have one standard for all society, across the board? Can we dictate that everyone must now say, 'Har Chinese Man Brooch", and we must all refer to "Asian Porcelains" and "Native American jewelry?" What's the right thing? ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

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1998, 1999 Judith Katz-Schwartz. All rights reserved.