Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour talked with CNN’s Candy Crowley yesterday, adding his opinion that the omission of slavery from Virginia’s recent “Confederate History Month” proclamation. “It’s just a nit,” the highest ranking public official in Mississippi states.
I was curious about the word; it’s not something I’ve ever heard–be it because of my cultural background (Filipino American) or my geography (the Northeast has its own strange diction, “frappes” and “Nor’easters” and the ever-slangy “wicked”).
In this usage, I believe the governor is comparing discussions of slavery to the definition of a nit as “a minor shortcoming.” But another definition for this idiosyncratic word?:
the egg of a louse or other parasitic insect; also : the insect itself when young
So, really: Do words matter?
In this case, the metaphor must be examined. It’s problematic to dismiss recent controversy over an entire commonwealth omitting slavery from its books–one of the most shameful parts of our national history, not to mention the origins of systemic inequality today–with a cursory comparison to a parasitic insect.
Countless politicians in Virginia–including NAACP, the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus and former Virginia Gov. Former L. Douglas Wilder, the first African American to be elected Governor–have condemned the omission, and characterized by others as “too sensitive.” Of course, there has been a repeated pattern of forgetting by Virginia’s governor; the trivialization of concerned parties is a distraction from the real issue: why previous governors have refused to acknowledge “Confederate History Month.”
The words in this discussion, of course–“nit,” “controversy,” “oversensitive”–reveal why we’re so uncomfortable with a dialogue on race in our country.