Who Gets to Drop the “F” Bomb? Learning to Navigate the Double Standards

Last week my two and half year-old grandson, cheeks rosy, blond curls in a tousle, innocently dropped the “F” bomb at daycare.

“That’s MY fucking truck!” he announced as a playmate ran toward the ride-on toy pickup.

Unsure of exactly what he had said, toddler speak being what it is, his teacher asked Vince to repeat himself.

“It’s MY fucking truck,” he said, now seated astride the coveted vehicle, his upturned face looking matter-of-fact rather than defiant or smug.

“Vince, we don’t say ‘fucking’ here. It’s a word that can make people feel bad. You can say ‘It’s my special truck.’ That’s more appropriate.”

When my daughter Emily was told of the incident, she was simultaneously horrified and amused. After all, his usage of the “f” bomb had been pitch perfect, adding emphasis to his statement just as he intended.

No doubt he had heard her use it enough times. Strapped in his carseat while his mom navigated New York City traffic, Vince obviously picked up on her reflexive “What a fucking idiot!” muttered when cut off by a taxi or stuck behind a slow moving out-of-towner.

“I guess I’m going to have to clean up my language,” she texted me, her words accompanied by a face palm emoji.

So far, Vince hasn’t shown any signs of recidivism. And even if he were to use the forbidden adjective again, the consequences would be nil. His age, gender and, yes, skin color protect him from being seen as somehow threatening to the status quo.

Not so for others who are not adorable blonde, blue-eyed toddlers. The question of who gets to use what language in “polite” conversation has always been a function of the norms espoused (if not practiced) by the dominant group.

Photo by Joshua Miranda on Pexels.com

Two recent examples involve powerful women of color. After weeks of bad press and even more bad faith posturing by Republican senators, Neera Tanden withdrew her nomination to become Director of the Office of Management and Budget this past Sunday afternoon. Her sin: tweets that criticized Republicans.

In this case, the “f” bomb was her frankness in calling out the incompetence and hypocrisy of the Trump administration and its enablers. In the rough and tumble world of Twitter, her less than vulgar language was nonetheless considered “inappropriate” and ultimately disqualifying by folks like Senator Rob Portman. As NPR reported in its coverage of the senator’s confirmation hearing question:

You wrote that Susan Collins is, quote, ‘the worst.’ That Tom Cotton is a fraud. That vampires have more heart than Ted Cruz. You called leader McConnell ‘Moscow Mitch’ and ‘Voldemort. How do you plan to mend fences and build relationships with members of Congress you have attacked through your public statements?”

“For those concerned about my rhetoric and my language, I’m sorry,” Tanden said. “I’m sorry for any hurt that they’ve caused.”

Her apology wasn’t enough. As the first woman of color to be nominated for Director of OMB, she did not, apparently, have to actually drop the “f” bomb to have her opinions considered inappropriate, hurtful, unforgivable. Just tweeting the obvious in uncoded terms made her temperament “unsuitable,” the idea of her ascension to high office “unthinkable.” How unladylike!

Hours after reading about Tanden’s fate, I watched another woman of color describe the ways in which she had been silenced, her words and actions deemed inappropriate at best, hysterical or diabolical at worst. In this case, Meghan Markle dropped both an “r” bomb and an “f” bomb, accusing Britain’s royal family of both racism and favoritism toward some working royals at her expense and her family’s safety.

Channeling Princess Diana, Meghan had the audacity to try to set the record straight about her treatment at the hands of “The Firm.” A firestorm of criticism has ensued, castigating Meghan for manipulating poor Harry, trying to sabotage the monarchy, displaying ingratitude, craving the spotlight, practicing all manner of deviousness and outright deception.

The rules of engagement in society define what is considered “appropriate” or “polite.” In the wider arena, those rules are set by those at the top of the social pyramid due to their class, gender and race. In the West, that means that a few white men (and very occasionally white women –eg Queen Elizabeth) set the rules, and women and people of color or of lower social status are expected to follow them. In smaller social settings — family, neighborhood, tribe — separate rules might apply. Children are taught how to “code switch,” to know when it is appropriate to use which set of rules.

As the societies that we live in have become more heterogeneous and more influenced by social media, the boundaries between cultures, between informal and formal settings, between public and private have become so much more porous — and so much more difficult to navigate.

My grandson Vince will learn that some words should not be used in public, even if they are used in private. The more important lesson is that there is a difference between being polite in order to provide space for other people and using the rules of polite behavior to exclude others, to assert one’s privilege to control the conversation, to uphold the sometimes oppressive status quo.

I’m sure that my daughter and son-in-law will help Vince to understand the difference. And that will, as the kids say, “be the bomb!”

21 thoughts on “Who Gets to Drop the “F” Bomb? Learning to Navigate the Double Standards”

  1. Republicans are so much better at finding made up weakness and attacking it — especially directed at women and other cultures. Constantly surprises me when it works. Democrats like Al Franken and Neera tandem should never apologize. And the rest of the party needs to stand with them instead of throwing them over for someone else. Otherwise, the republicans will just keep doing it whenever they need a scapegoat to raise a few more dollars. Fuck that.


    1. The Democratic Party needs realize that most people don’t follow the news very closely. As a result, the simple slogans repeated endlessly by Fox News and Republican elected officials set the terms of debate. Until Democrats learn to message more effectively — not dishonestly — just more forcefully, they will always face an uphill electoral battle.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. The segue from daycare to Congress is brilliant. I always wabt to believe that when we know better, we do better but I am so often disappointed. The most frustrating conversation I had last night about “the interview” was with another woman ! She argued that Meghan had no right to be surprised and should have expected the treatment she got. Glad my friend lives on another coast because I’d have stormed her castle. Truth is, we don’t know what we don’t know. I refuse to give up my optimism that we shall indeed overcome. 


    1. Thank you! Let’s not forget that the majority of white women voted for Trump — twice, even if your friend didn’t. Factors like race and class can — no pun intended — trump gender, alas.


  3. In 1954, Miss Zissis asked our second grade class to make words from the letters in “Christmas.” A classmate of mine came up with “shit” and Miss Z said that she did not recognize that word. He replied that his parents used it all the time. I was sheltered in a world where the mild “s” word could even cause a school commotion!


  4. Great piece, Trish! So perceptive and right on target. Thanks for giving voice to this. Mindy

    Sent from my iPhone



  5. I totally get your point about who gets away with saying what. On the other hand, calling people names in public is not going to lead society into a more civil direction. Sort of like wrestling with pigs, you know.

    Should Tanden have been disqualified for her remarks? Absolutely not. Democrats have been enduring far worse slander from Trump and his cronies for the past five years. Would I have preferred that she take the high road and ignore the creeps, rather than call them out on Twitter? Yep. The creeps make themselves look bad. Pointing it out just gives them more of the attention they crave.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think the platform itself — Twitter — encourages folks to lose a bit of their filter. It feels informal, inconsequential. It’s easy to press send and not think through how a tweet might sound a few years after the fact.

      I remember my grandmother’s motto to only appear in the newspaper three times: birth; marriage; death. How things have changed! Now everyone wants to be visible all the time.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. My daughter came home years ago asking me “What starts with F and ends uck?’ I was a little stunned since she was four, but said I had no idea. FIRE TRUCK she yelled actually having no idea what the joke even meant. As for foul language I am happiest when no one uses it.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I heard part of an interview on NPR today and this stuck with me: all the time we spend on Zoom and our screens makes us feel less vulnerable because we aren’t actually interacting with people. And what if that continues when we re-enter society in person. Will those who lash out continue to? or suffer the consequence of being on the receiving end? Color and gender always enter into it and privilege prevails. I also have a blonde blue-eyed grandson (age 4) who has been dropping the F bomb – as an adjective that makes perfect sense – in public places. My daughter & son-in-law have to figure out what to do. When she was age 2 1/2, I had to stop her from saying “Ronald Regan is an asshole.” Generation to generation it goes.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. It’s really hilarious. I’m sure the child care teachers roared about that one over beers that night. I gave up swearing when we started having kids. I’ve pretty much never picked it back up, and I’m happy to say that my kids don’t apparently swear either. When I was about sixteen, my father came home from some tense event and dropped an f-bomb. I was flabbergasted. It’s one of two times I ever heard him swear. Man the power behind that f-bomb was amazing. I think it’s best to hold on to swear words for special occasions. Then people know you mean business.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. It seems that we are collectively, as a culture, learning that words – and especially name calling and race baiting – matter in the end. Some refer to it as “cancel culture” but usually only because their words came back to bite them and they’re unapologetic so they wish to blame others. In reality, they’re reaping what they’ve sown. That’s life.

    To me, it’s about impulse control and choosing timing and phrasing carefully. I drop the f-bomb all the time, but mostly privately or in select company. If you aren’t willing to face the potential consequences of your word choice, you have the option to avoid saying/writing/texting the word(s) in a public forum. It’s really that simple.


  10. It feels like NYC toddlers should get special dispensation for that word. I mean, you’d have to wrap them in bubble wrap and put earmuffs on them for them NOT to hear it! I’m laughing–this story is precious:).

    Liked by 1 person

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