While casually scrolling through my Facebook feed, I came across an article about a boy whose teachers referred to him as a mutt. It stuck out to me for a few reasons, initially because I saw the word “mutt” and immediately thought it might be about my favorite comic strip, Mutts, by Patrick McDonnell.
But it was far less saccharine, as the comment was a response to the boy’s bi-racial ethnicity, a comment that left him confused, and later hurt as others explained what it meant. That. That’s where my problem is.
This immediately made me think of an argument I got into a few weeks about cultural appropriation in Halloween costumes. Stay with me here. Whenever this topic comes up, you have voices from all sides defending, attacking, etc. You will always have a Mexican commentator explaining (though they should not have to) why it’s upsetting to see other people reducing their identity to a few (often negative) stereotypes. But then you always have someone from that ethnic group commenting that, “hey, I’m X culture, and X costume doesn’t bother me. Get over it,” and detractors rally around this comment. “See? Get over it!”
That’s where my problem is.
I am bi-racial, and I am not offended by being called a mutt. Growing up, that was playfully how my mother referred to us, perhaps because of my love of dogs and aforementioned Sunday funnies. For me, it was the best way to understand my situation. Since I wanted to be a zoologist as a child, I was way more knowledgeable about animals than anything else. I knew that mutts tended to be healthier and generally genetically better than their purebred counterparts. I knew that being mixed was a beautiful thing, and something that I think has given me a valuable perspective in this country, as well as two different cultures to learn to love and be a part of, though it wasn’t always easy for me.
It can be tough to straddle that line, to not feel like you are enough of one or the other. I think that would have been even more evident to me if I wasn’t so white-passing, but that in turn made it hard for me to accept my Caribbean roots, especially around other Latinos. This certainly got easier/better as other people’s opinions became less important, which is exactly why this child’s feelings are especially valid. They are still learning about and forming an identity, and even just understanding what that means.
In that moment, I could very easily be that person commenting, “it’s not an insult, get over it” or “dogs are awesome, chill out” and project my own experience. But these words hurt and confused this boy. They dehumanized him, and he’s not the only one to feel that way, hence a trending hashtag on social media.
Being called a mutt does not offend me personally, but I will 100% stand up for this boy, and anyone else who is hurt by the word. And I will knowingly refrain from calling someone one. Maybe this boy, and ten other mixed-race people are the only people who care about this. Do we decry them, ignore their wishes and carry on? Would you really be so selfish? It won’t impact you as much to alter your behavior on this one little matter as much as it would greatly affect him and his self-acceptance and worth. In the same way that one fucking day of dressing up in costumes won’t impact your life in the way a small Muslim boy’s might if he sees a bunch of bros dressed as “terrorists.” That, and hey, people won’t think you’re a racist, always a plus. I’m not sure in what way the teacher intended the comment, or how it was delivered, but regardless, they should apologize–and apologize correctly. None of this “I’m sorry you were offended by my comment victim blaming, but taking responsibility for the harm that they caused. People forget that it’s real people behind the usernames, on the other side of the screen. Just because something doesn’t offend you doesn’t mean it won’t impact others.
This reminds me of an interesting discussion I’d had with some of my Asian-American friends. They very casually use the term “FOB” aka “Fresh Off the Boat” to describe themselves and their immigrant families. In my family, where my mom’s side of the family are immigrants, calling someone a fob was considered rude. So I was shocked when I heard a Chinese-American friend casually say that her mom was such a fob. But when I learned that it was casual for other cultures (and in some ways, a way to own the phrase), it didn’t bother me as much to hear them say it. In turn, they were mindful about referring to me or my family in such a way.
And that’s where we get the comments about the “PC police,” ruining all the fun and censoring people. Do you really have a desire to say or do something that knowingly hurts people? Can you not think of alternatives that don’t impact people negatively? I’m sorry that your so self-centered that you renounce being politically correct when its only intention is to have everyone treated with equal respect. So sorry that we as a society try to hold people to such damning expectations. In all of these situations and debates, whether it’s about the topic above, or culture appropriation vs appreciation, halloween costumes, dreadlocks, what’s ok and not ok when traveling…it all boils down to context. There is absolutely grey areas with these things, but there’s just so much meanness about it upfront without people trying to understand one another or having empathy or understanding the situation. I guess this is just a long-winded way of asking everyone to be a little more mindful in life.