One of the hallmarks of our time is the issue of political correctness. It is not my intention to get into a discussion of whether or not we should adapt our daily speech to reflect whatever is currently politically correct, but I note that this attitude of limiting our vocabulary to respond to someone's preconceived notion or correctness is pervading even the genealogical community. Right up front I need to point out that genealogy deals with history. Sometimes history isn't pleasant. I have been re-watching the Ken Burns film on the U.S. Civil War. I also note that 2011 is 150th anniversary of the start of the war with the first shot fired at Fort Sumter in the Charleston, South Carolina harbor, April 12, 1861 at 4:30 am. Watch the show if you want to know what I mean about history not being pleasant.
So when we are researching our genealogy, do we gloss over the "politically incorrect" parts and try and make everything as acceptable as possible? In reflecting back on some of the circumstances of my early childhood with an adult perspective, I realized something I never appreciated or understood as a child; I lived in a segregated community. In my case, the segregation was not between Black and White, but between Spanish speaking and English speaking people. To what extent do those early experiences influence how we compile our personal family history. Should we write out any prejudice or discrimination? Do we re-write history to suit the current style of political correctness?
Because of my extensive background in linguistics, I am usually painfully aware of the distinctions made in speech. I learned very early in my life that words that were entirely acceptable in Argentina could have a very offensive meaning in Mexico and the opposite was also true, Mexican words were sometimes taboo in other countries. The same thing happens at all levels of speech with what people think is acceptable. Political correctness deals with how different groups within the same society communicate with and refer to each other. Even in my office at work, I can no longer comfortably refer to any of the employees as "secretaries." They are now either para-legal assistants or simply legal assistants. But does that mean when I find an offensive tern in an historical record that I must change it on the chance that it will offend someone in the present age?
I am not addressing the issue of "delicate" subject matter, facts that would embarrass people still living, but I am looking at the problem of what to call someone or something. Just the other day, I was called a "gringo" and the person using that term referred to the person next to me, who spoke German, with another more offensive term. I was not offended but I wondered if my friend was. Reality is that years ago people used language that if used today would get you fired or arrested. (Some use the same language today). But we are genealogists/historians, to ask the question again, do we sanitize the facts to suit our concept of acceptability?
My answer is a definite no. Facts are facts. Enough history gets re-written as it is without me contributing to the drift off into fantasy. From my present perspective, I may believe my ancestors to be racists bigots, but that does not give me leave to alter their record to make believe they were something else. If you begin to alter your ancestors' history, you might as well go all the way and chose your own pedigree, one you can be proud of and makes you more distinguished. If you would like a few different viewpoints look at this post by DearMYRTLE back in September, 2010.