My grandmother is going to be 92 years old in December. She grew up in Braddock, a borough near Pittsburgh that saw its population crumble from 50,000 to 5,000 in her lifetime. She grew up in a deeply Italian, Eastern European, and Black neighborhood.
When I was a kid I stood on her stoop and she pointed at the five Catholic churches in site–“There’s the Dago church, the Hunky church, the Polack church, the other Dago church, and the Russians, but they’re a different kind of Catholic.” The nationalities barely mixed; the races most certainly did not.
I grew up hearing every foul racial epithet you’ve ever read in a book. She wasn’t even necessarily complaining. They were just descriptors.
In the early 90s, I came of age, and my mouth grew up with me. I started calling her on her language. She started hearing people on TV saying it wasn’t OK to use those words. The last time I remember her offhandedly using a racist slur was probably around 1994, when she said something about “those jig-… but I probably shouldn’t say that.” She used one of the most offensive terms out there, and she corrected herself.
She’s been living in Greene County with my parents for 15 years. Her mind is slipping. But she watches The View with a fervor, and hasn’t used a racial slur in my presence in years. (Between The View and Sister Act, Whoopi Goldberg can do no wrong.) Somehow homosexuality came up a few months ago, and she mentioned Rosie O’Donnell, and said, “I don’t know why people are so mean to those people. I don’t think they can help it.”
Point being: Grandma’s almost 92 years old, and she understands that political correctness is not being “politically correct.” It’s realizing there’s shit she’s been saying that she literally should not say: not just because I asked her not to. Not just because it’s unkind and rude.
Why? Because it’s also WRONG. And she tries, and has been trying for the last 30 years of her life.
Does she always get it right? No. Do any of us who grew up in not-quite-woke environments? No. But we try. And we should keep trying. We shouldn’t see ourselves as “allies” and leave it there; we must continue listening and evolving.
Bottom line: Do NOT tell me times were better back then, when Grandma could talk about the n****rs down the street as casually as I mention now that my neighbor used to be a dentist. It was toxic for her neighborhood—white flight decimated Braddock—and it was toxic for her. And she knew it. She wanted to connect with her grandchildren, and she also recognized that maybe that crap she’d been saying all along wasn’t right.
My grandmother didn’t just use those words; she internalized them. And when she stopped using those terms, she internalized that, too. Behavior influences your perspective. Change the behavior and you change yourself.
If you’re not changing (you who are not 92 years old, by the way) it’s because you don’t want to… or because you live in such a secluded society that there’s no one around you to show you that change is even possible. In which case, enjoy your comfort zone while you can, and please don’t complain to the rest of us, who are working every day to move on. Including my Grandma.