Eenie, meenie, miney, mo,
Catch a tiger by the toe,
If he hollers, let him go,
Eenie, meenie, miney, mo.
This is, of course, how we picked a person to be “it” in a game of tag in elementary school.
We also learned about yard apes. Yard apes were kids who were a little older than rug rats and ankle biters, such as you would see out in the yard hanging upside down from the jungle gym or trying to get the swingset to tip. They were a little wild, and challenging to babysit.
It wasn’t until I was in my 20s that I first heard that the “tiger” in “Eeeny, meenie, miney, mo” wasn’t originally a tiger (tigers don’t “holler”, for one thing, they eat you), and that ‘yard ape’ had another, much more derogatory meaning, possibly derived from lawn ornaments depicting Black people.
My reaction at the time? Well, isn’t it nice that we’ve fixed “Eenie meenie” so it’s not racist any more? And we didn’t mean ‘yard ape’ like that!
The owner of the Princess and the Yard Ape in Caledonia used that second excuse when registering her business in 2014. Apparently, it was an affectionate term for her husband. She didn’t mean the racist connotation, because her husband was the “antithesis” of the derogatory meaning. Which she was aware of and used anyway. Apparently she initially committed to change the name when confronted, then backed down because “she didn’t mean it that way.” (The latest update indicates she’s reconsidering.)
This is what we too often do as white people. We find out something we said or did is racist. Do we apologize and listen to the hurt that what we did caused? No, we keep reiterating that we “didn’t mean it that way”– making our own comfort in our own inner goodness paramount. I held onto the sanitized versions of “Eeenie meenie” and ‘yard ape’ for years because they were my own childhood truth, bringing up visions of innocent laughter and games. And they absolutely were innocent. But that doesn’t negate the racist roots.
In recent years, I’ve learned to listen when I hear a word or a phrase is racist (or otherwise derogatory) in origin and I did not realize it. If I used that word or phrase, I apologize and say I’ll do better next time. I do some research. I find a better word or phrase, and I stop using the other one. Sometimes, I find a better word even if I find the origins aren’t racist at all–if there is a current meaning that is derogatory, I won’t use it. This doesn’t apply just to words or phrases with racist or otherwise derogatory meanings, incidentally — words have power and meaning, and I never want to undermine my message through poorly-chosen phrases, and I particularly do not want any listener shaking their head and wondering whether I’m ignorant or intentionally offensive.
Being called told that a treasured memory from your childhood has racist connotations can feel like being publicly sent to stand in the corner for being a bad girl, which is probably why the reaction is so often to try to defend yourself, rather than to understand why and to learn how to do better next time. But knowledge has a superpower–the ability to banish shame and embarrassment, and to point the way to how to avoid future pitfalls.
“One potato, two potato” works just as well for choosing ‘it’ for tag, incidentally. If the kids these days even do that anymore.