I shall now tell you the story of “The Stinky Fat Black French Girl Who Was Omnipresent in London.” It is a true story, and it happened to me. (I was not the title character.)
Upon arriving in London, I was delighted to find a place that would allow me access to the Internet for only one “pound” for 15 minutes. Now, since English money is very colorful and festive, I had a hard time treating it like real money. “You want one of these pink ones in exchange for that doughnut?” I would say to a shopkeeper. “Fine! Here, have a yellow one, too!” So paying a “pound” for 15 minutes of Internet time seemed like quite a bargain.
It was while I was checking my e-mail that I first encountered Stinky Fat Black French Girl. Note that I have arranged those descriptors in order of importance: That she smelled bad was the most noticeable thing about her; that she was female, I almost overlooked altogether.
I smelled her before I saw her. I was bombarded by a sudden blast of body odor powerful enough to curdle milk, and I turned to see whence it came. I assumed I would find a flaming bag of dog excrement sitting next to me, or perhaps Satan smoking a cigar made out of Dom DeLuise’s underpants. But instead, I saw this person. She was stinky, yes; she was also quite large, and black, and she was speaking and writing in French.
(Pardon me if “black” is not the term I ought to have used. “African-American” doesn’t apply, obviously, since she wasn’t American, and “African-French” doesn’t sound right at all. Plus, I think we can agree that the title I have given her is already long and unwieldy enough without attempting to add an ill-fitting bit of political correctness to it.)
So she was all of those things, but first and foremost, she was stinky. She was knocking birds out of the sky — and we were indoors! She smelled so bad, she had wavy lines coming off her like cartoon characters do.
I finished my business and fled as quickly as possible, stripping my clothes off in horror and stuffing them into the nearest rubbish bin as I dashed out into the night. The next day, when I returned to the same Internal terminal, I found Stinky Fat Black French Girl there again (still?), typing e-mails and being stinky. Two nights later, she was there again (still?), stinky and e-maily as ever. Was there no end to her stinkiness? Was there no end to her being there?
A few nights later, I was in London’s theater district, which they call “the West End,” taking in some shows, which they call “shows.” As I emerged from the subway station, which they call a “tube stop,” I noticed a commotion of some kind, which they call a “brouhaha,” and a small crowd gathering, which they don’t have a word for. I figured they were watching a street performer. I elbowed my way to the front and found the source of the commotion was that someone had passed out and was lying on the sidewalk, unconscious.
I tossed him 50 pence — it was more interesting than “Fame: The Musical,” which I had paid 18 “pounds” for — and I was on my way. But as I turned around, whom should I see in the crowd but Stinky Fat Black French Girl! She, too, had noticed the ruckus and was now on her cell phone, apparently summoning medical help, which is more than I was doing.
A thought occurred to me: What if she’s a superhero whose super power is that she smells bad? If you were an evil-doer, you’d consider a foul-smelling defender of justice a formidable opponent indeed. I know I wouldn’t fight her, or touch her, or get near her. And as a Fresh-Smelling Thin White American Guy, I’m probably her arch-enemy. Good thing I made the connection and launched a devastating can of Speed Stick at her before she saw me.
What is it with me and stinky people (tow truck drivers, Urine Man, etc.)? Surely I don't encounter more of them than regular people. Maybe it just bothers me more than everyone else, and I have a column in which to write about them.
There was some question among co-workers over whether this column was "racist." It's not, of course. To be racist, I would need to single out a race and say bad things about it. All I said here was that the girl was black. I said nothing good or bad about blacks in general, or even about her specifically that was related to her being black. (Nowhere, for example, did I imply that her race and her stinkiness were connected, nor do I think that was the case.) Her race was mentioned matter-of-factly.
The question in the newspaper business is whether it's important to the story to mention the race of the people you're talking about. Sometimes, just mentioning the race can imply that it's related to whatever the story is about. In this case, I merely wanted to paint a word picture. I wanted you to be able to imagine what she looked like. If I had not mentioned her race, you would have pictured a Caucasian girl, since I said she was French and most Frenchies are white. You would have pictured her incorrectly. It's not especially "relevant" that she was fat, either, but it helps you imagine the situation better. (For that matter, none of it is "relevant." It's a humor column in which I relate an amusing anecdote, and nothing more.)
So the question became whether readers would PERCEIVE it as racist. I figured some would. Remember, the readers perceive that if you mention something in a humorous context, you are making fun of that thing. If I tried to write my columns so that no one could misunderstand my intentions, I'd never get anything written.
If you were bothered by my mentioning the girl's race, ponder what it was that bothered you. Did you think I was making a comment about black people? About girls? About stinky people? About fat people? About French people? Is it even possible, in this era, to mention race "in passing"? Or does mentioning it, however slightly, automatically make the conversation "about" race? Discuss.
In retrospect, and as was pointed out by someone, "noticeability" would have been a better word than "importance." I was mentioning the girl's traits in the order that I noticed them, not necessarily in the order that they mattered.
Most of the people who called the paper complaining about this column focused on its general juvenility, which I do not dispute. A few focused on the "racism," notably this e-mail writer:
I found your column very offensive. It wasn't funny at all. [Again, I say, "offensive" and "not funny" are two different complaints. I think a lot of offensive things are funny.] You and people like you are the reason Utah and especially Utah County has such a poor reputation among minorities in this state. You may have tried to be satirical or clever with your remarks, but you failed miserably. I can't believe your paper even printed the article. You and your editor should be seriously reprimanded or fired.
As an black Utahn and former resident of Provo, I feel you owe an apology to every reader of the Daily Herald and to the citizens of Utah in general. While you struggled with the appropriate title to use in describing the object of your article, I have no problem identifying the title which fits you: IGNORANT RASCIST JERK!!! [If you're going to call someone a racist -- and I get the feeling this guy calls a lot of people racist -- you should learn to spell it.]
Should you ever again publish anything remotely as offensive as the piece in yesterday's paper, I vow that within the bounds of the law I will use all the influence, good will and means I have to ensure that you will not offend or embarrass the people of Provo and this great state a third time.
I trembled mightily at his last threat. I responded with this e-mail. Note that I do not apologize for the column, which I am not sorry for, but for his misunderstanding of it, which was not particularly my fault but which I don't mind apologizing for.
I apologize if a misunderstanding of my column resulted in offense. My mentioning that the girl in question was black was merely to help the reader imagine her correctly. If I had not mentioned her race, the reader would have assumed she was white (since most French people are), and therefore would not have accurately pictured her.
In no way did I imply that her bad smell or fatness were BECAUSE she was black; I merely said she was those things, AND black (and French, and a girl). It was simply a statement of fact. Again, I apologize if misconstruing my point led to you being offended by it.
And he came back with this:
I appreciate the apology, but the fact that you needed to identify her as black so that she wouldn't be mistaken by your readers as white signifies the lack of cultural understanding and ethnocentrism that permeates Utah County society and is so offensive to minorities. Your response truly shows that neither you or your editor "get it." Which is sad. You don't even realize what you did wrong and what was so offensive about the article, which is even sadder. You didn't need to mention her race, ethnicity , gender or nationality, at all. You did so to accurately point out that she was different from you and the vast majority of your readers and somehow thought that putting a picture of her in the minds of the reader along with the fact that she smelled bad was in some way comical. You were wrong!
I'm not offended because I miscontrued your point. Your point in the article and in your email response is very clear. I'm offended because in my opinion you never should have written the piece poking fun at a smelly person to begin with; such information is neither newsworthy or uplifting--it only degrages another human being and reinforces stereotypes.
Moreover, having decided to develop the story, you didn't need to so specifically identify the woman, unless, as you said, you wanted to make sure white Utahns knew you weren't talking about "one of yourselves." I accept your apology, but my vow still stands.
I was perturbed, as I always am, by this man's insistence that he knew what I "meant" better than I did. I wrote back:
"Moreover, having decided to develop the story, you didn't need to so specifically identify the woman, unless, as you said, you wanted to make sure white Utahns knew you weren't talking about "one of yourselves." I accept your apology, but my vow still stands."
While I understand that you seem to think you know my intentions better than I do, I can assure you, this is not the case. In fact, in all the world, I am the No. 1 authority on what my intentions were. You, actually, are very far down on the list of People Who Know What Eric's Intentions Are.
I wasn't trying to make it clear that she was not "one of us." I was trying to paint a word picture in the reader's mind: This stinky girl, what did she look like? Well, she was overweight, and black, and a female. THAT'S ALL I WAS SAYING. If she had been thin, Canadian and pimple-faced, I'd have specified that, too. It is you who have read into it more than I meant.
It is you who have made it an issue of race. I only MENTIONED her race, as a point of fact; I ascribed nothing to that race, good or bad. I only said it existed.
Is it wrong even to mention what someone's race is? Don't be silly. Writers describe their characters. It is easily offended hot-heads who try to turn that into racism.
As for your threat --
"Should you ever again publish anything remotely as offensive as the piece in yesterday's paper, I vow that within the bounds of the law I will use all the influence, good will and means I have to ensure that you will not offend or embarrass the people of Provo and this great state a third time."
-- I dare you.
Eric D. Snider
Too bad the stinky girl didn't win an Oscar for Best Actress. Then I could mention her race all I want and no one would get mad.