Politics
Photo: AP Photo: AP  

New frontiers in hypersensitivity: State Department officer says ‘holding down the fort’ is racist

Photo of Will Rahn
Will Rahn
Senior Editor

John M. Robinson, the Chief Diversity Officer at the U.S. Department of State, wants America’s diplomats to know that common phrases and idioms like “holding down the fort” are, in fact, deeply racist.

Robinson, who also serves as director of the Department’s Office of Civil Rights, used his “Diversity Notes” feature in the July/August issue of the official “State Magazine” to examine the hateful roots of everyday sayings. In one recent public relations kerfuffle at Nike, Inc., he wrote, the company torpedoed a sneaker called the “Black and Tan.”

“What a wonderful celebratory gesture and appreciation for Irish culture. Not!” wrote Robinson, an adult.

Robinson notes that “Black and Tan,” in addition to being an enjoyably robust alcoholic concoction, can refer to the brutal Protestant militiamen who ravaged the Irish countryside in the early 20th century — which is why Irish bartenders always get so upset when you order one.

In an effort to avoid offending those notoriously fragile Irish sensibilities, Nike pulled the shoe from stores.

Robinson would like us all to learn from the sneaker company’s inadvertent racism and really start watching what we say. For example, did you know “going Dutch” is a reference to Netherlanders’ apparently well-known parsimoniousness, and that your widowed neighbor, sweet old Mrs. Rasmussen, cries every time she hears you use it?

And did you know using the phrase “holding down the fort” is the linguistic equivalent of scalping a Cherokee? According to Robinson, the phrase dates back to American soldiers on the western frontier who wanted to “hold down” all that land they stole.

“Handicap” and “rule of thumb” are two more figures of speech that Robsinon, in his wisdom, has decreed offensive. The latter, Robinson says, refers to the width of a stick a man could once use to legally beat his wife.

And in case you’re wondering how he could have done all the etymological detective work necessary to conclude that these phrases came from where he says they came from, and still have time to perform his Chief Diversity Officer duties at the State Department, wonder no more: Robinson doesn’t really know if any of this is true.

“Much has been written about whether the etymologies below are true or merely folklore, but this isn’t about their historical validity,” Robinson writes. “[I]nstead, it is an opportunity to remember that our choice of wording affects our professional environment.”

Duly noted, Mr. Robinson.

Follow Will on Twitter