Ah, the power in a word! The old adage, “Sticks and stones may break my bones …” is simply not true. Words, names and phrases in common usage are laden with emotions or experiences that trigger knee-jerk reactions just as quickly as a doctor can trigger a reflex by tapping the right spot just below one’s knee-cap. Often our own history with a group of people or one individual in particular is all we need to trigger a negative response to a single utterance by that group or individual; ironically the same utterance by one of our own is OK.
So it was, in my opinion, when our County Executive Steve Levy, on Jan. 18, at our 25th annual Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Breakfast, uttered the name, “Shiniqua” or “Shaniqua.” He ended his statement with a purposely ethnocentric-sounding word, I believe, to convey to the audience that people should not suffer discrimination in housing because of their ethnicity. He had in the same sentence used other ethnocentric and Anglo-Saxon sounding names to make the point that everyone should have the same opportunity and that he would not tolerate racial or ethnic bias in housing.
Many in the audience and in the media after the event, as is all too common these days, parsed his statement down to that single word or sound bite, the one most emotionally charged with the greatest potential for generating negative press. Now that the tea kettle of public outcry has been removed from the front burner and is no longer making such a loud noise, perhaps what I am about to say actually can be both heard and fully digested.
Lest it be suggested that I am writing this simply because Mr. Levy was one of my supporters in my recent bid for a Riverhead Town Board seat, let me state for the record that I have not always agreed with every policy position or past statement made by our county executive. In the instance of his remarks at the MLK Breakfast, however, I feel that those who were offended really missed the point. I fully endorse what Steve Levy said at the event. I do not believe that a man who has supported every annual MLK Breakfast we have hosted while he has been in office would come with prepared remarks that purposely would insult or offend the diverse audience that he knew would attend the event. Further, I do not believe that, while Mr. Levy certainly knew that the name “Shiniqua” is more apt to be found in African-American communities, that he also knew the name carried a controversial connotation for some people. I, for one, am still wondering why, if the name is somehow derogatory or disparaging, so many parents are giving it to their offspring. I know a young lady in my community with the name Shiniqua, and I attach nothing negative to her because of it.
Of much greater significance to me is the fact that Mr. Levy’s remarks stirred up so much controversy over a practice that is not news at all; people with ethnocentric-sounding names have long been victims of discrimination. Many decades ago, for example, a young Hispanic boy was pressured into changing his real name to “Ricky Valens” just so that his music career would have a real chance of succeeding. The practice continues. Most of us are familiar with the attempt in the last presidential campaign to milk the public’s disdain for Barack Hussein Obama’s middle name and thereby suggest that he was unfit to serve as president.
Let’s stop kidding ourselves and be honest. We are living in a climate of extreme racial polarization with dangerous hypersensitivity, anger and rage percolating just beneath the surface in many communities. We are a long way from a “postracial” America. Steve Levy’s remarks were not judged on their substance. Each of us needs honestly to examine our own reactions to people from different cultures with different-sounding names. I applauded the county executive when he stated that his administration would not tolerate racial and ethnic bias in housing. I will continue to applaud him, as I take him at his word. I will also continue to urge people from every culture and creed to come together, not just at our annual MLK Breakfast, but at NAACP meetings, Long Island Organizing Network events, and trainings, such as those provided by groups like ERASE RACISM. Whether or not we always agree, let’s not stop pursuing the realization of the beloved community that the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. envisioned.
Ms. Coverdale is a member of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Breakfast Committee of First Baptist Church of Riverhead.