Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Forget Hispaniels; follow the yellow man

State Rep. Eric Watson may have said españols, but "yellow" tale is more interesting

There was a brouhaha yesterday about a recent comment by State Rep. Eric Watson, who supposedly used the word "Hispaniels" to describe Hispanics while expressing his opposition to a bill which would express regret to African-Americans for the wrongs of slavery. See posts and comments at the blogs: Pith in the Wind, Tiny Cat Pants, and Post Politics.

I think Rep. Watson said españols, that it wasn't a slur against Hispanics, and that it isn't even the most interesting part of this story.

An investigation

This little investigation got started when I called Rep. Watson's office for comment after I first heard about this. The word "Hispaniel" looked so odd that I had to get the Representative's side of the story before posting a reference to it on, especially if there was any danger of Watson's appearing on the list of prominent Tennessee officials who have circulated negativity about Hispanics.

Watson's legislative assistant Marianne Purcell spoke with me first. She said that Rep. Watson recalled saying, "español," and that afterwards he (maybe rhetorically) had asked something like, "That's a word, isn't it?" (Commenter "nm" over at Tiny Cat Pants seemed to be the only one to guess this possibility on the blogs yesterday; I'll admit, I hadn't thought of it, either.)

I mentioned to Purcell that Rep. Watson appeared to have used the term - if it was "español" - as a noun to describe a group of people, and neither she nor I knew what to make of that. Since I mentioned that the blog posts and comments referenced above didn't have any link to any audio, Purcell proceeded to look up the video on the Legislature's web site while we were speaking (you can, too: go to Tennessee General Assembly Streaming Video > State & Local Government > April 7, 2009 > Video). Keep in mind that I'm not a constituent of Mr. Watson, and this was after 5pm, so as far as I was concerned, Purcell went way above and beyond to help me out by scrolling video for me over the phone in real time. She even kept a nice attitude about it. (Lesson to Republicans: if you want to give government a bad name, you're going to have to hide nice people like Marianne Purcell.)

So here we are, Purcell looking for the audio while we're on the phone and me trying to do the same. At one moment Purcell runs across the audio of Rep. Watson's referring to different races and then mentioning "Mexicans" apparently as an example of one of the races. I could hear it on her speakers, and we both remarked that it was clearly "Mexicans" and not "Hispaniels," so we assumed there was another portion of his comments we were looking for with the "Hispaniels"-sounding remark. Apparently Rep. Watson either came in the office or was in the office already when the "Mexicans" part of the audio came on, because Purcell said she rolled her eyes at (or did something else similarly and mildly admonishing to Watson, I forget exactly what) when "Mexicans" came across the speakers. I thought it was at least a good sign that Watson's legislative assistant recognized the impropriety of using the term "Mexicans" as a general descriptor, especially when referring either to race or to multiple possible countries. (I told her she might enjoy the beer commercial from a few posts back here on, about the guy at the bar who meets four women who say they're from different countries in South America, after which the man asks the bartender for drinks for "my four Mexican friends.")

Then Purcell handed the phone to Watson, to my surprise. I told him that he and I both grew up Baptist and were born in 1973 - he said he liked that - and then he basically repeated what Purcell had told me, that he had said "español" and not "Hispaniel." Unfortunately, without the audio yet of what he actually said, I wasn't able to ask any useful questions. In any case, I thought it courteous of the Representative to take the time to speak with me, and he left the door open for follow-up if needed.

Then Purcell was back on the line, and she said she'd keep looking for the supposed "Hispaniel" comment and send me a link to it. A few minutes later, she referred me to the 18:46 mark of the video on the Legislature's site.

With the video in hand, and giving Watson the benefit of the doubt on "español," I come up with a transcript that looks like this:

Rep. Watson: "You know, we need to move on and put this stuff behind us. Both sides - Caucasian, Españols, African-American - are all guilty of this back in the 1800's. You've read it and so have I. Even the yellow man, if you look back in the 1820's in Sumterville..."

Rep. Gilmore (bill sponsor): "Mm-hmm" [Affirmative mumble]

Rep. Watson: "...even here close by, the yellow man, which is the white man, was [?] slavery too. I understand what you're doing, I just don't want you to be accused of [?] profiling or going towards a certain group of people on this bill. But I could support this bill if you could include all the slavery, not just one race, because there was more than just the African-American that was [en]slaved, back in the 1800's, if you do your - you know, look into the history. Would you entertain that?

Rep. Gilmore (bill sponsor): Well, let me just -

Rep. Watson: The Spanish people, I'm talking about Chine- even Chinese.
And here's the comment about the Mexicans:

Rep. Watson: So you would not agree with putting all races that was involved, correct? You don't want to do your resolution including everybody that's been involved in slavery, no matter what their race is.

Rep. Gilmore: Explain a little bit more about what you mean by that, Representative Watson.

Rep. Watson: Well, what I mean is-

Rep. Gilmore: Because I know that Indians-

Rep. Watson: Yeah-

Rep. Gilmore: -by [?] large, have, okay, but the others were in such small numbers, I'm not sure if I understand what we're saying here.

Rep. Watson: What I'm saying is let's do a House [?] Resolution for everybody - I mean everybody, even for the Indians, the Mexicans that has been involved in slavery, for everybody, let's do this for everybody not for just a certain group of people. I know you don't want us to be accused of profiling, and I don't either. But let's do this for everybody and be fair across the board all I'm saying.

Rep. Gilmore: I'd like to try to pass it as it is, Representative Watson.

Rep. Watson: Okay.

Rep. Gilmore: Again, I [?] want to minimize slavery for anyone, because enslaving anybody is wrong.

Rep. Watson: Yes, it is.

Rep. Gilmore: The numbers of other races I think sometime were small in comparison.

Rep. Watson: Okay.
The exchange ended in Rep. Gilmore saying to Rep. Watson, "I appreciate you."

Did anyone catch that Rep. Gilmore responded in the affirmative to the "yellow man" reference? I want to get back to that below; it turns out this detail (missing from the Scene's transcription) is a crucial clue.

Back to españols as a noun, I couldn't find too many references to the word or that usage online, but this Filipino blog post from 2008 uses the word españols in exactly the same context as Watson, describing those who were guilty of slavery:
It was the same scenario when this español took their boats to the Americans and let their swords glitter in the face of the Aztecs. Correct me if I’m wrong. What I am writing is based on stock knowledge alone. When the Spanish conquistadors set their foot on the South America, we all knew that the Aztec culture was doomed. The continual conquest for gun, God and glory ‘gave’ the españols license to almost wipe out an entire civilization. And you must say, they did succeed — nearly killing the whole population and turning the remainder to slaves.
(I'll leave it to the rest of you to snark about the continual contest for gun, God and glory in modern politics.)

The Scene, by the way, not looking for the term españols, found the term "hispaniels" used negatively in a random blog post from 2006, but it's not used in the slavery context. As between the neutral and historical usage of the Filipino post and the negative usage cited by the Scene, the neutral and historical usage is the closest.

It would seem that Watson is calling the oppressors the españols and calling the oppressed "Mexicans." That could be harmless.

To the extent that Watson mentions race in his remarks, it might be worth it for him to note later that the concept of race would include neither the españols, Mexicans, or even Hispanics for that matter. As has been discussed on Kleinheider's blog and Tiny Cat Pants multiple times over the years, Hispanic is not a race - it is an ethnicity.

Yellow man

Let's get back to the yellow man. Rep. Gilmore indicated that she knew what Rep. Watson was talking about when he referred to the "yellow man." What could this be, that she knows what he's talking about? Is it common Tennessee knowledge? Is it a story that was shared in the halls of Legislative Plaza last week? The latter seems more likely.

I searched for "yellow man" and Sumterville (Sumterville is the missing detail from the Scene transcript), and the results show that the "yellow man" reference is part of the story of William Ellison, a former slave who became a slaveowner, described in the book Black Masters as "a man of mixed white and black ancestry."

(An aside: So is Rep. Watson citing an example of a mixed-race slaveowner to discredit a bill that honors African-Americans by expressing regret for their enslavement? That would be interesting, because Watson also quoted our mixed-race president multiple times for the proposition that apologies for slavery are inappropriate (hence Rep. Gilmore's preference for the concept of regret and not apology)).

Where things get interesting is if you look for the "yellow man" reference outside the context of the Black Masters book. The term "yellow man" in regard to slavery appears most commonly on the Internet in an article attributed to Robert M. Grooms from the October 1995 edition of The Barnes Review, which Wikipedia says is "dedicated to historical revisionism such as Holocaust denial." The Grooms article ("Dixie's Censored Subject: Black Slaveowners") has been making the rounds in theoretically harmless places like web sites for gun owners, Corvette owners, terrorism/security subjects, and Civil War history, but it's also been showing up in some scary places, as well - including one with the words "jew" and "white" showing up numerous times.

Oh, yeah, and, too (BlueDogCatcher, you saw this coming).

Which is not to say that by association Rep. Watson is necessarily a gun or Corvette owner, terrorism/security news fan, Civil War buff, or freeper or much, much, worse. But odds are that those folks are where Watson got the argument he used last week to oppose the anti-slavery resolution.


The bad taste in my mouth is not so much from the español comment, which after all isn't the greatest evidence in the world for an argument that Rep. Watson employed a slur against Hispanics. "Yellow man," also, isn't convincing as a slur, either, given the Grooms story.

It's just that the sentiment in the places where the "yellow man" reference appears on the Internet is so dark - and, despite that negativity, a reference to the "yellow man" still makes it into committee remarks by one of our State legislators. That, and the dubious refusal of the majority to acknowledge the oppression of a certain minority - on the grounds of fairness, no less.

Espanol Photo by Thomas Hawk. Licensed under Creative Commons.
Yellow Man Photo by Jean-François Bauche. Licensed under Creative Commons.

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