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'Splainin', Home Trainin', and Showing One's Behind

As you know, I enforced my own personal news blackout regarding the Judge Sotomayor confirmation hearings. Couldn't bear to watch or listen, which made my morning drive to work a bit more difficult since I listen to NPR when I drive in. NPR provided gavel-to-gavel coverage. I listened to a lot of Sirius XM instead.

Wouldn't you know it that the Judge Sotomayor confirmation hearings were the spark that got my husband, Black Man Not Blogging (BMNB), paying attention to the news such that he put aside his usual ESPN radio, classic soul hits station V101.1 and whatnot to actually follow coverage of this event?

"You know, there was some Senator from Oklahoma yesterday who told Judge Sotomayor that she "had some 'splainin' to do.'"

Why is he telling me this?, I thought. The one person I could count on to be uninformed just turned into Edward R. Murrow.

I took the bait. "Do you mean 'splainin' as in the southern sense of the word, like 'let me 'splain that to you . . . . '"

BMNB, a born southerner, interrupted me. "I don't know anything about a southern use of the word, but this guy was talking like Ricky Ricardo talking Lucy."

Oh no he didn't.

Normally, when I write about news events for this blog, I read the local paper and national news websites to get all versions of the events and the proper names for all the participants. I haven't even bothered this time. You don't have to tell me this Senator was white and male. I already know. No one else could possibly perceive their rank in the social and political hierarchy of this country to be so high that they could speak to a federal judge in that manner, no matter what higher office she was seeking.

To me, such language is racist and sexist (since we don't have a word for language that is both) disrespectful, and demonstrative of a profound lack of home training. Or rather, home trainin'.

First, let me admit my bias. I clerked for a federal appellate judge, one of the few African American ones in the nation at the time. I never expected to get the clerkship, but I never lost sight of the fact that it was an extremely valuable opportunity for which I should be grateful. Added to this was the fact that I later found out that my mother knew this judge from when he was a district attorney and my mother was in charge of creating false identities for undercover officers at the DMV. Their paths had crossed long before, and my mother held this man in very high esteem. She didn't have to say a word. It was understood that, even as a grown woman and law school graduate, I was to be on my best behavior in his presence because he was a judge and someone she knew and respected. I was to work harder than the rest and give this man no trouble. In other words, I was not to "show my behind." More on that later.

I never did call, nor did I ever imagine calling, my judge by anything other than "judge" or "your honor." If I recall correctly, we law clerks for the judge spent the first few days rising to our feet whenever he entered a room until he finally excused us from this ritual show of respect. Long after my clerkship ended, whenever I contacted him, I always called him "judge," even after he took senior status. It would never enter my mind to address a judge, federal or otherwise, as anything other than "judge" or "your honor" or to assume a level a familiarity that in any way hinted at anything less than respect. I had at least that much home training.

In more recent years, I was introduced to a local judge at a bar association function who was a childhood friend of my late mother's. When I told him who I was, he looked at me real hard, slowly beamed, and said, "Come here, girl. You're family." With that, he gave me a strong hug and a kiss on the cheek. Now, mind you, despite the fact that this judge's history with my family precedes my birth, he will always be "judge" to me. I cannot and will not call him by his first name, or "Uncle Judge," or any variant thereof. Why? Because my mother would come back from her grave, and, in her parlance, "slap the black off of me" if I spoke to him in any way that did not connote respect for him as an elder AND as a judge. I don't get to speak to him that way, because he is not my peer. My mother gave me at least that much home training.

Mind you, home training is a function of culture and class. Although African American culture is portrayed in the media as disrespectful and often lacking in self-respect, this is the image that sells but does not necessarily reflect the truth. It isn't representative of my upbringing and the upbringing of my family and friends. Respect is a big deal in African American culture, in my experience. It is why we don't get to call elders by their first names, even if they are your in-laws. To this day I call my mother-in-law "Mrs. X," and my husband calls my father, "Mr. Y." When I hear people, usually white people, address their in-laws by their first names, I flinch. To borrow a phrase from my mother, "I ain't never gonna be that grown" that I can call my mother-in-law by her first name. At best, she's "Mother X," but her first name? That's off limits to me. (Although I have to admit, there is one elder cousin my siblings and I fell into the bad habit of calling by his first name, but he was cool with it and my mother let it slide.)

I learned about the socio-economic class aspect of home training when I was a graduate student at Princeton. A local black mayor came to speak to an assemblage of us black graduate students. (And yes, there were so few of us that you could fit us all in a classroom.) History professor Nell Painter was there. I don't remember what the mayor said to us, but I do remember what Professor Painter told us when he left: "Whenever an elected official or dignitary enters the room, you are supposed to stand."

At first, I was miffed that she said this. I didn't appreciate being chided like a child, and I thought to myself, "Well, we didn't have a lot of elected officials or dignitaries coming to the south Sacramento when I was growing up, so how was I supposed to know?" Little did I know or appreciate that Professor Painter, as an African American professor, was trying to prepare us across our different socio-economic class lines for the worlds we would enter as Ivy League-educated African Americans.

Which brings me to my next point. Part of African American home training, or at least my African American home training, is not "showing your behind." "Showing your behind" means doing something that is so over-the-top in public that it embarrasses not only you but your family. The term is often used to describe children's temper tantrums or bad behavior in public venues such as stores and churches, to wit: "So-and-so's child showed her behind in church yesterday." It can also include really bad adult behavior, like parents who cuss out teachers in front of their classes or employees who cuss out their bosses in a meeting, to wit: "Sharon showed her behind up on her job yesterday and now she wonders why they're firing her." It's synonymous with "acting a fool."

What I learned in law school is that there are levels of showing one's behind. If what you've done is really bad, you've gone beyond just showing your behind; you've "shown your ass." And, as my African American law school friend from the south demonstrated by verbal example, if what you've done not only embarrasses yourself and your family, but the entire African American race, you've gone beyond just "showing your ass": You've reached the highest level of bad, mortifying behavior, to wit, "showing your monkey ass." Or, as she put it in her southern accent, "showing yo' muhnkay ahyess."

So, I don't know what the white analog of "showing your monkey ass" is, but whatever it is, that's what the Senator from Oklahoma did when he told JUDGE Sotomayor that she had some "'splainin' to do." His profound lack of home training as to how to properly address a federal judge not only embarrassed him and his family, but the entire white race. That he would even form his lips to speak to her in such a racist manner, well, that's just a hybrid of ignorance, hubris, and white privilege all rolled into one. He would have never addressed then-Judge Alito with a feigned Italian accent. I guess our white, male senators believe they can speak to a woman of color, even a woman of color as powerful as Judge Sotomayor, any which way they please.

He's lucky my mother isn't alive. On behalf of white people, she would have slapped the white off of him, just as a matter of home training.


LeleShakir said…
Love it! Hope you don't find my letting my FaceBook friends see your blog. You are ALWAYS so on point. I too clerked with an appellate judge (DC) and really feel you on this one.

Thanks for the props on Facebook. I appreciate it. Here's to more R-E-S-P-E-C-T!

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