‘Shenanigans’ in Rio

pic44731_mdThis just in from my friend, the writer Ethelbert Miller:

We know too many are trapped inside the criminal-justice system. After all the dirt of crime we never seem to reach the rinse cycle. We are never able to stop or dry our tears from injustice. One word I never heard any black person incarcerated use was the word shenanigans. I think if we used this word to describe black behavior there would be a reduction in the number of black boys arrested. Think of the word shenanigans recently used by U.S. swimmer Ryan Lochte. This simple word means no jail time for him. He can continue to live if not in the pool at least in the great outdoors. His criminal behavior won’t come with a price tag. He will be free to live his life with fewer commercial endorsements or he might make money as a consultant to future Olympic hopefuls. This is what I call that language thing so I won’t have to label it white privilege. What Lochte and his fellow swimmers did in Rio is what an English teacher might call a Huck Finn/Tom Sawyer moment. Let’s pee and destroy someone’s property and call it — shenanigans. No handcuffs for the penis. Just call it silly or high-spirited behavior — say it was mischief — just don’t associate it with the blackness of one’s skin. It will never cling — it’s that language thing again. It’s like the morning ash that covers our skins when we attempt to rise and live our lives.

Ethelbert is referring, of course, to the incident at the Rio de Janiero Olympics, where Ryan Lochte and others invented a story of having been robbed at gunpoint in order to cover up their own vandalism. I think Ethelbert is right; that is, not only have I never heard a black person refer to his or his friends’ “shenanigans,” I cannot imagine them employing the term, any more than I can imagine a male politician’s voice being described as “shrill.” To check whether my own impression is biased, I searched the Corpus of Contemporary American English. I found shenanigans used to describe Bill Clinton many times; to describe possible bending of the law to exonerate the clerk who refused to grant same-sex marriage licenses; to warn of threats to President Obama’s life; to describe the  manipulation of the budget in New Jersey; to name the hassles that states must endure to put Obamacare into effect; to sum up the activities of Jack Abramoff, who was convicted on 21 counts of corruption; to label the attention-getting activities of Miley Cyrus; to describe the fraud committed by the ticket brokers known as the Wiseguys; to describe the robo-signing practices of corrupt mortgage brokers. The most frequent modifier of the word is either political or Wall Street. It’s used both to lighten up on criminal or otherwise despicable behavior, or to cast aspersions on governmental bureaucracy. The only black person I found named as committing shenanigans was a Heisman-winning Florida State quarterback who stole some crab legs (and was also accused of rape, but that charge was set aside from the “shenanigans”).

Like many people, I thought the word shenanigans was Irish-derived slang, echoing hooligan and mulligan. Turns out the origin is unknown but suspected to have descended from the Spanish charranada, meaning “trick” or “deceit.” Its first known use was in mid-19th-century San Francisco, though, where Irish immigrants constituted 37 percent of the city’s population by 1880, and the hundreds of Shenanigan’s Pubs around today certainly consider themselves Irish. As with the expression drinking the Kool-Aid, which I discussed not long ago, the actual origin may matter less than common opinion. Mischievous leprechauns and tipsy Irishmen are common stereotypes, neither taken very seriously.

But Ethelbert Miller is correct: Any untoward or illegal action by an African-American in this country is taken very seriously. Perhaps there would be an exception for an Olympic athlete (as there was, to a limited extent, for a preprofessional football player), but I doubt that, had Simone Biles gotten drunk, smashed a bathroom door, and then claimed to have been held up at gunpoint, her actions would have been described as shenanigans. Yet Lochte’s behavior earned that jesting description not only from the perpetrator himself but also, hundreds of times, in the press.

What to do? We’re not going to ban the word — and who’d want to, given how much fun it is to say? But we can be mindful of its selective use, its exonerating effect, and the consequences for all those for whom the corresponding term seems to be, say, thuggery or criminality. When my friend Ethelbert refers to the “price tag” paid by black people and not white people because of such word choices, he’s not mouthing malarkey, but speaking the simple truth.

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