An agency tasked to preserve French culture in Louisiana is threatening to sue Texas State Representative Dennis Bonnen for using the ethnic slur “coonass.”
As I have covered here before as a blogger of Louisiana Creole descent, that’s not something you want to call someone unless you share in that distinction and even then, not in such a formal setting.
He may thought he was cracking a joke to a small audience in a committee hearing but in the age of the internet our next door neighbors hear when we reinforce their negative stereotypes.
All politics are local so when you insult an entire region the typical partisanship dissipates. To that point Republican State Senator Norbert Chabert told the New Orleans Times-Picayune “When you make a deliberate comment like that, how can I not get offended as a Acadiana American? It’s insulting to our accent. It’s insulting to be called that by someone from out of state.”
The original offending comment made my Bonnen during a committee hearing that he chaired is as follows:
“I want to be clear – a Katrina child is far different,” Bonnen said. “We can make jokes and pick on Louisiana and it’s fun and all that, but it’s a hell of a lot different bringing a kid over from Louisiana than a child who’s just made a treacherous journey…There’s a significant difference…We had to have a teacher who could do coonass in English, but here we have to do Spanish and English, maybe, and there’s a higher marker.”
Bonnen, who was referring to how the immigrant refugees flooding the border might be harder to teach because they speak a foreign language, managed to insult our cross border friends to the east and south in the same breathe. The response from the Louisiana agency was swift and harsh.
“The most insulting and derogatory term levied against Acadians is the term “coonass.” The use of this offensive term re-affirms negative stereotypes and its vestiges of pre-civil rights era racial discrimination.”
The letter, which you can read in full via the Houston Chronicle, concludes by saying:
“Your intentions are not more important than the effect they have. Not meaning to cause harm is an explanation, not an excuse. And if this unfortunate incident offers us anything, it’s a teachable moment about the best way to respond when we screw up and say things that are sexist/racist/homophobic/insensitive without understanding their impact. One common – and immensely dickish – response is that it’s “not a big deal,” and that it’s the responsibility of person who has been mistreated or marginalized to remove themselves and stop complaining about it. Which is an attempt not only to silence them and sanction spaces as overtly hostile to them, but also essentially a reenactment of that scene from The Simpsons where Bart and Lisa start walking toward each other while punching and kicking the air wildly, saying ‘if you get hit, it’s your own fault!’”Therefore, we respectfully request that you refrain from engaging in the use and promotion of this slang. To continue to do so would be a violation of applicable federal and state laws and a personal affront to many people of Louisiana.
If you do not agree to cease in the promotion of the pejorative, it may be necessary for us to take legal action which may include filing a claim with the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
Hoping the enclosed information will be enlightening to you, I remain,
WARREN A. PERRIN
Member of the board CODOFIL
While most Louisianians seem to agree that “foreigners” shouldn’t use the term, the New Orleans daily also reported that Barry Ancelet, a professor of Francophone Studies at the University of Louisiana – Lafayette, thinks the work is flat out racist. He said, “Whoever said this ought to be derided as the racist that he is…If he had any sense of decency, he would apologize.”
Rep. Bonnen is basically left with two choices, apologize immediately, or submit his long form birth certificate with proof of Acadian origin — so far I have seen neither.
Follow me on Twitter at @joethepleb.