To PC or not to PC?

I’ve been travelling back and forth, from Trinidad to Boston, quite a bit in the last few years. Naturally, people are curious, people ask questions. Like, “What’s the difference between Trinis and New Englanders.” My standard reply has always been, “Trinis are extremely warm but impolite. New Englanders are extremely polite but not warm.”

I say this because people in New England (much more than any place I’ve ever been) seem to be motivated by the demands of “political correctness.”

In Trinidad…not so much. I’m pretty sure New England females didn’t grow up having to walk down the street with salutations like, “Glasses!”, “Convent Girl!”, “Friend…Family!” being shouted by random men. I’m certain New Englanders don’t, in casual conversation, address/refer to each other by ethnic/racial monikers: “Aye! Chinee, long time no see,”; “Dougla, you looking nice today,”; “Blacks is a fella could real sing,”; “Where Red-man?”

And I’ve never seen New Englanders arbitrarily comment on each other’s physical state: “Sexy Pregnant Thing!”; “How you looking so small, boy? You have worries or what?”; “Like you putting on some size, girl? W’happen the man treating you nice?”; “Tall-man how school going?”  In Trinidad, this is all regarded as good-natured, mundane conversation. And should you betray even the slightest sign of feeling wounded, real insults – hot like Moruga Scorpion Pepper – would then be rubbed in, just to teach you a lesson for being so “thin-skin.”

The meaning of “political correctness” has evolved over time. It was first used around 1970 in the United States and its abbreviation “P.C.” started appearing in the late 1980s. The original sense may be summarized as: the political movement and phenomenon, which began in the US, with the aim to enforce a set of ideologies and views on the topics of gender, race and other minorities. It refers to language and ideas that may cause offence to some identity groups and aims at giving preferential treatment to members of those social groups.

However, its meaning has bloomed over the years, from just covering minority groups to basically everybody. Take, for example, this definition from a 2015 Upworthy article: “what it basically comes down to is political correctness means not being a jerk to others. Political correctness is nothing more than treating others with respect. Being kind. Being a nice person.”

Simultaneous with this expansion in meaning, the term “politically correct” acquired derogatory connotations in the United States. As one commentator put it, “it’s often used as an epithet … something we say to people who we think are suppressing necessary truth for fear of offending.”

If the 2016 US Presidential Race is any indication, views on “political correctness” have polarized that country. To grossly over-simplify the debate, I’ll just say that the political left seems convinced that being PC means just being a decent person; the political right seems to view it as a form of speech policing.

Once the USA catches something, the whole world gets a fever. So it’s no surprise the concept of “political correctness” has spread to Trinidad and Tobago. Recently, a friend of mine was on Facebook lamenting this new trend of Trinis copying the US “hyper sensitive society…where everybody is offended for something.”

He raises an interesting question. How does “political correctness” work in a place like Trinidad. How does it work where whites, progeny of the slave-owning class, are the minority? Is it supposed to protect them? Should we never mention the atrocities of their forefathers so as to protect them from embarrassment, discomfort or white-guilt?

And there is this: How does PC operate on an island that was British, but spoke French and Spanish, and was populated mostly by Africans and Indians, with the later addition of Chinese and Syrian/Lebanese immigrants – and then everyone began to have sexual relations with everyone else? When you’re mixed with at least three different ethnicities, who is The Other and who is your brother?  When your father’s family is Muslim, your mother’s is Hindu and you’re married to a Christian, which God do you defend? And since there is always some Other in you, wouldn’t you end up being offended every five minutes?

My friend’s objection to PC is not the same as the US complaint that it inhibits truth-telling. He is saying that a too-ready adoption of PC will undermine the School-of-Hard-Knocks in which both he and I were trained and blooded to face the world. He is suggesting that we are swapping out Trini thick-skin for US brittleness; trading in our emotional dexterity for the flat-footedness of taking offence. Maybe he’s right.

In a seminal 1996 article in The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell tried to analyse the success West Indian immigrants have enjoyed in America. He talked of his Jamaican cousin, Noel, who “had a job once removing asbestos at Kennedy Airport, and his boss there called him “nigger” and cut his hours. But Noel didn’t take it personally.” Instead, Noel rationalized that the boss “didn’t like women or Jews, either, or people with college degrees–or even himself, for that matter.” Gladwell also mentions Noel was aspiring to move his family to a bigger house in Garden City. When a Black-American friend pointed out that Garden City was mostly-white and “no place for a black person,” Noel wasn’t fazed at all – being “fair-skinned,” with a white grandfather, he didn’t consider himself black at all.

Complicate that situation with two or three other family ethnicities and/or religions and you have the average Trini.

Maybe that’s part of our prowess. We can tolerate other people calling us names because we call each other those things first. We mentally side-step prejudice by convincing ourselves that our tangled genealogy makes us exempt. Maybe that is the key to our hardiness. Maybe that’s why Trinis spring up everywhere and thrive, like weeds, some might say. Maybe Malcolm Gladwell is correct: for us, people from a tiny rock marching with our funny accent and non-white skin into a big, hostile world, a too-ready assimilation of American values – like political correctness – may be tantamount to suicide.

I’ll tell you one thing: whenever I step foot in the US -New England or otherwise – I wear my Trini exoskeleton with pride. It’s a good look for me.

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