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Despite the amazing strides towards cultural and racial awareness in the U.S. in the past decade, there still seems to be a lot of confusion and debate about some words. And it's understandable! There are so many tricky words for a non-minority person to navigate. If our freedom of speech is to have any practical value, why are some seemingly harmless, culture-specific words socially sanctioned and some not? How are you supposed to navigate these unspoken rules when society can't even agree on what they are!? Well, I'm here to help with one word in particular.
I've always hated this word. Coming from my friends and family, it's annoying. But coming from someone of a different race, who barely knows me, it's maddening.
The dictionary definition is pretty harmless. If one were to take the word literally, without any cultural or historical context attached to it, it could even be construed as a compliment. But like many contested words in the cultural zeitgeist, this is where a lot of people go wrong. They forget that words themselves are meaningless. That words are just tools we use to enhance our perception. And perception is everything.
The “Sassy Black Woman” Stereotype
By now most people should be familiar with it, if not completely aware of it. It originated as far back as when American history began with slavery. White slave owners used the word “sassy” to describe a slave who misbehaved or was disobedient in some way. While it was not necessarily a slander in itself, it was used in an insulting fashion and any black woman labeled as such would be treated more harshly than normal as a result.
The term continued to be used in a derogatory fashion during the Reconstruction and Civil Rights movement by people of all races to describe a black maid or employee who disagreed with or talked back to her superiors. Over time the word became a slander that could ruin a black woman’s reputation among employers. And yet the word became common among black communities because of the specific connotations it had. My grandmother, who grew up during the Civil Rights Movement, still uses the term today for any person who questions her authority or view on something, as in, “Don’t sass me, girl,” or “You're a sassy little thing, aren't you!?”
The negative connotations of the word only changed when the media glamourized the outspoken, confident black woman in figures like Foxy Brown, Patty Labelle, Louise from The Jeffersons and other such stars. Through the mainstream media and independent blaxploitation movies, “sassy” has become a general name for all black women who speak their mind, no matter what their character or disposition. I’ve been called “sassy” by white friends who only meant it as a compliment or casual observation, yet were unaware of the negative connotations of the term. It has always bothered me, but not to the extent that I am severely insulted or hurt by it.
But back to the main point. Sassy certainly isn’t the worst word in the English language. However, it’s important for people to be informed of the exact meaning and history of such a descriptive word before they use it. Although people use this word innocently, with no idea of the racial connotations it has, it's their ignorance that has the power to do damage, more than the word itself. The same could be said for any hotly debated word in the logosphere.
As a society, we are more culturally sensitive and aware than in any previous generation of our country's history. And while this signals progress for many, I've always had a creeping doubt that this newfound sensitivity is unsustainable because plenty of people have joined the fight but haven't educated themselves on why they are fighting. So why not start with one of the easy words?