When Robert Pacuinas addressed the Sacramento City Council on Tuesday, he
was talking a blue streak about red-light cameras.
At one point, the 39-year-old lawyer emphasized his point by saying,
"I think we should call a spade a spade."
He had only three minutes to speak but it was enough time for
Pacuinas, who is white, to step into the confounding quagmire of race,
language and context.
After he took his seat, City Councilwoman Lauren Hammond, who is
African American, said sternly, "You made an ethnically and racially
derogatory remark and I hope you think about what you said. It is not
appreciated. It is no longer a part of modern English. The phrase just
isn't used in good company anymore."
In an interview later, Hammond was no less angry.
"It's an old racist analogy and I'm sick of hearing it. This is
2001," she said.
The councilwoman is known for being sensitive about perceived racial
slurs. She once took a fellow council member to task for uttering the same
phrase. Last year, she demanded that a word be removed from the 2000
census for Russian-speaking Sacramentans because it sounded too much like
At the afternoon council session Tuesday, Hammond was perturbed, but
Pacuinas was livid. He had just been labeled a racist, or at least
racially insensitive. He was at a loss until he began replaying his words
in his head, wondering what was so offensive. He was not afforded a chance
"I was completely frustrated," Pacuinas said later. "You would have to
take it completely out of context to think that it referred to anything
racial. How she connected the two, it just blew my mind."
The Potential of Language to Polarize . . .
It turns out, Pacuinas was correct. But so, in a way, was Hammond. Now
Pacuinas wants a public apology. And so does Hammond. Their positions
illustrate the potential of language to polarize, how the same word can
mean starkly different things to different people sitting in the same
Most language experts agree that the phrase is nearly 500 years old and
refers to the common garden implement. A variation of the expression has
been traced to Greek biographer Plutarch, who died in A.D. 125. To call a
spade a spade means to call something by its proper name, to speak
But this saying, in the racially charged context of American public
discourse, appears to be anything but precise. The word "spade" can mean a
variety of things: a small shovel, a suit in a deck of cards, a 3-year-old
stag. But it is also a derogatory term, now less commonly used, for a
dark-skinned black person.
In interviews with a number of African Americans, they say they can't
help thinking about racial issues when they hear the phrase.
Because language is a work in progress, it is possible that a saying
that began as innocuous could someday be labelled "offensive" in
dictionaries and usage manuals if enough people interpret it that way,
according to Michael Agnes, editor of Webster's New World Collegiate
Agnes says he realizes the harmless meaning of the phrase, but he also
realizes its harmful potential.
"We are in a hypersensitive language era, particularly in politics and
social engagement," Agnes said. "If I were in a public setting, I probably
would not use that expression, knowing full well someone could
misunderstand it and take offense. One tends to avoid things that could be
misinterpreted. I can't avoid confronting social and linguistic reality."
Words That Mean Different Things to Different People
Ida Sydnor, president of the Sacramento chapter of the National
Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said "spade" is one of
those hot-button words that means different things to different people.
"It can be a racial statement if people are using it that way," she
said. "However, the term has become so loose that a lot of people don't
know what it means. We have to educate people that the word can be
offensive. In all fairness to the guy, we would have to deal with the
context and ask, 'Did he mean to be offensive?' "
Local politicians had no interest in getting in the middle of a
discussion on language and race. Mayor Heather Fargo, through her aide,
said she didn't want to talk about it. Neither did Councilman Dave Jones.
Another council member agreed to talk, but not for publication.
A similar and much-publicized misunderstanding cropped up in 1999 in
Washington, D.C., when a top mayoral aide (who was white) used the word
"niggardly" in referring to handling a city
budget. Most people would agree that the word sounds inflammatory, but it
actually has a Scandinavian origin and the word is not related to the
racial slur. It means stingy or miserly. The aide was forced to resign
when staffers perceived he was being racist. He was eventually rehired.
"To call a spade a spade is not unlike the situation of 'niggardly' in
that the term itself is innocuous," said Walt Wolfram, president of the
Linguistic Society of America and author of the forthcoming book "The
Development of African-American English."
"The problem is, when you live in a racist society, what you find is
there is no such thing as neutral language," Wolfram added.
Hammond seems to underscore Wolfram's point. In fact, she still
considers "niggardly" to be derogatory.
"Any word that has that base word refers to black people, the darkest
people on earth," Hammond said.
By Friday, Pacuinas was still angry, unrepentant and speaking
"I wouldn't mind sitting down with (Hammond) and talking about it," he
said. "I just can't believe she is sticking to her guns."
But language experts say that in this racially charged environment,
where the identical words can amuse some and wound others, there are those
who will say the same thing about him.