One of the latest tempests in a teapot from the Internet is Kristi Capel’s use of the word “jigaboo” last week.
In case you haven’t seen the clip, Cleveland WJW Channel 8 morning anchor Capel went off script on Feb. 23 to comment about singer Lady Gaga’s performance on the Oscars the night before. Fishing for a way to describe the loud music that accompanied Gaga’s performance of “The Sound of Music,” Capel came up with “jigaboo,” as in, “It’s really hard to hear (Lady Gaga’s) voice with all the jigaboo music.” She then repeated the word.
“Jigaboo,” of course, is an offensive term for a black person. Capel’s utterance of it set off a powder keg of commentary online, and it wasn’t long before the term was trending on Twitter. Among many calls for her termination, some commentators took the opportunity to implicate all Fox commentators as racist, which is, of course, ridiculous.
Capel apologized both on air and on Twitter (she was also suspended for three days), but her mea culpa signaled another round of controversy. “I apologize if I offended you, I had no idea it was a word or what it meant. Thank you for watching,” she tweeted.
The firestorm now centered on whether a TV news anchor would use a word that she couldn’t define; and, if so, what it said about her professionalism and judgment. It appeared ludicrous that an adult woman could not be aware of the word and its implications. Where had she grown up?
I was among those people who thought there was no way Capel could have reached adulthood without coming into contact with the word’s negative connotation. But then I read an OpEd piece on NBCnews.com by Jason Johnson, a political science professor at Hiram College, who argued that as a boy he had used the word “goomba” in front of his father to describe mushroom-shaped video game characters in “Super Mario Brothers.”
To Johnson’s father, the word “goomba” was a derogatory term for Italian-Americans. While Johnson doesn’t say if his father explicitly schooled him about its meaning, he writes that “I knew better than to use the word ‘goomba’ again, and I was only 8 years old.” Somehow, Johnson then equates this with Capel’s ignorance about “jigaboo” as an adult, concluding: “If I could figure out how to play Super Mario Brothers without using racial slurs at 8 years old, there’s no reason a grown woman with a journalism degree can’t find a way to talk about Lady Gaga without sounding racist.”
At the risk of sounding ignorant, let me say that as a 46-year-old man, I had no idea that “goomba” was derogatory toward any one group. I have always used the word as a substitute for a large, hulking, not-too-bright person, the kind of heavy who might show up in an old Warner Bros. gangster movie. I can’t swear to it, but I’ve probably even used the word in that context a few times throughout my life.
But if I were to abide by the “rules” of journalism as dictated by any number of Internet wags, I should never use a word unless I know its definition. This sent me to Merriam-Webster, and its entry on goombah (spelled there with an “h”): “1: a close friend or associate — used especially among Italian-American men; 2: a member of a secret chiefly Italian-American crime organization: mafioso; broadly: gangster; and 3: a macho Italian-American man.”
Nowhere do I see a note that the term is offensive to Italian-Americans (although the gangster implication is none too flattering). On the contrary, the first definition is downright positive. It’s only in less authoritative realms — Wikipedia and other sites — that “goombah” is listed as an insult. Obviously, any negative connotations weren’t so widely known that they kept game designers from hanging the word on “Super Mario Brothers” characters.
Of course, no positive entry accompanies “jigaboo” in Merriam-Webster’s, or any other dictionary. The term is unconscionable, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility that even a college-educated person might never have come into contact with it. Or even if she had, not in a prohibitive context.
The only difference between Johnson’s story and Capel’s is that his vocabulary misfire happened when he was young, in the privacy of his home, with only his father to witness it. Capel’s happened when she was an adult, on the air, in full view of a public that too often punishes weakness or ignorance the way residents of old Salem punished witches.
Let he — or she — who has never used a word without full knowledge of all its meanings and implications cast the first stone.
cschillig on Twitter
Originally published in The Alliance Review on March 5, 2015.