For a long time, I didn’t know when to use who and when to use whom.
I got through grade school, junior high and high school with A’s on damn near every bit of poetry or prose I did, pretty much everything from fiction to essays to journaling, and never really understood the difference. I suppose a lot of it was because I had a natural talent for writing, so I got put in the advanced English classes and in the advanced classes, they didn’t spend much time on the mechanics of writing but went into deeper and more creative territory.
(Trust me, there’s a reason I’m telling you this.)
So, it wasn’t until my required journalism class, “Copyediting” in college—where many grammar and punctuation “basics” were hammered home regardless of how good our English grades were in high school—that I finally understood fully the difference between who and whom (as well as discovering the real differences between that and which and when to say you and I vs. you and us, among other things). Once I did, it became easy in my writing to use who and whom properly all the time. And then, lo and behold, I discovered that as the months and years went on, I was beginning to use it properly in my speech as well, often without thinking about it, or thinking about it so quickly that no one listening to me would have known I was doing mental juggling of the words. I hardly think about it at all anymore; I usually just do it, naturally.
So, too, I have noticed that there are certain things I just don’t do or say anymore, or that I do or say differently, since I’ve been married to an African-American woman for more than a decade now.
This was brought home to me yesterday as we were driving home from an errand, and we were listening to Nirvana: Unplugged in N.Y. We started talking about the day Kurt Cobain died and comparing it to other famous musicians who had died and had huge outpourings of emotion over their deaths. John Lennon, Bob Marley, Jim Morrison, etc. And it was at that point that I asked my wife, “Who was that young lady who died a few years back and they had carriages and shit at her funeral procession, even though she really wasn’t that groundbreaking a singer and didn’t have much history behind her?”
The answer, as many of you might know, is Aliyah, as my wife reminded me. But, that wasn’t the point.
The point is that for just a split-second before I spoke, I thought about saying, “Who was that black girl who…”
And yet in that same split-second, my brain reminded me that if it were a white woman, I would never amend my question with mention of her race. Never. Not in a million years. And so I dropped the “black” before I spoke. And my wife had no idea (and won’t until she reads this, of course) that I had even gone through that semi-unconscious mental exercise.
The reason I bring it up is that it leads me to a not-all-that-terribly-groundbreaking theory I have developed since yesterday afternoon that there are three stages in the growth of one’s racial awareness, if indeed one is actually trying to grow in seeing people as people and not as colors or ethnicities.
There is stage 1, in which you do things like add a person’s race or color as a descriptor whenever they aren’t your own race or color. You do it either because you don’t even think about it or what that signifies or because you think you need to, even though chances are you don’t. (Or maybe you assume people are a certain way because of their race alone. Or maybe you treat them in a vastly different way because of race, in a manner that puts them in an less-than-ideal position. Etc.)
Then there is stage 2, in which it occurs to you to do something like the above, but you consciously force down the urge.
Finally, there is stage 3, which I can only hope arrives real McSoon not just for others but also myself—a time when the issue won’t even pop up in your head and you will stop doing something like the above, without even realizing you’ve stopped doing it. (I think I’m stage 2.478 at this point)
So, for whom am I even working on this issue? Me? My wife? My children? Actually, all of the above, in addition to all the friends, acquaintances and even strangers I will encounter in my life, especially those who aren’t pink like me.
That’s who. 😉