Everytime I tell this story to someone, the listener laughs until he/she wets his/her pants. Brace yourself; you may need protection.
For the first several years of my teaching career, I taught in a public school in a very urban section of Memphis, my hometown. Segragation being (sadly) very much alive in this city meant the population of the school where I taught was 100% African-American. Diversity was a random, “out-there” concept. None of the students and few of the teachers looked like me, the white girl.
The many years I taught there were so valuable to me because I learned so much about the richness of African-American culture. I’ve never laughed so hard in my life. The women with whom I taught and the children under my tutelage were hysterical! In general, they ‘tell it like it is’, and I dig that.
You would never have guessed that about me, right?
Anyway, one day I overheard a conversation between two of my colleagues. They were talking about one of the women’s husband’s ex-wife, who was, apparently, causing some trouble in my colleague’s personal life. They kept referring to her as a “Hefuh.” Still being rather new and unaccustomed to the diction, I later asked one of them what that word was. I needed to know in case (a) I heard someone calling me that name, or (b) I found myself needing to call someone that name.
The grammarian in me wanted to use it in context.
She quickly told me that the word “Hefuh” is used to describe a woman who is “actin’ a fool”. It’s preceeded by a sucking of the teeth noise, and followed with “please.” Altogether, it goes like this: (teeth sucking) “Hefuh, please.” I got the “actin’ a fool” part; I’d been to the local Wal-Mart and seen it firsthand. “Actin’ a fool” is clearly a part of white, Wal-Mart culture too. However, I still didn’t understand the actual word, so I asked again. My colleague told me that the word is the one used to name a female cow. A heifer.
Ahhh…it’s all coming clear to me now. “Hefuh” = female cow. Must avoid being called this at all costs. Check.
Fast forward several years. I’m in San Diego and am beginning my first year as Vice Principal at a very suburban, mostly white, upscale, private, Christian high school. It’s the first week of school, and I’m in my new office working. The chair of the Spanish department, a thirty-something, Mexican, very humble and godly man walks into my office, steps directly up to my desk, flashes his huge smile at me and says, “What’s up, Hefuh?”
The street training I’d cut my teaching teeth on in the mean streets of Memphis engulfed me immediately. In an instant, it washed away years and years of graduate-level education, the black business suit I was wearing (figuratively, of course), and the hours of practice maintaining my composure when dealing with parents, students, teachers, and the people at the Wal-Mart.
What did you just call me, punk? Gosh, I hope that wasn’t out loud.
I looked up from what I was doing. Slowly. Don’t overreact, I told myself. I’m sure he’s not familiar with the in’s and out’s of African-American culture and doesn’t understand his offense. He knows your background and is just trying to connect with you using jargon you understand. This is a teachable moment. Use it wisely.
“Hi, Mr. Lopez*,” I said with eery calm. “What did you say? I think I may have misunderstood you.”
“Oh, I said, ‘What’s up, Hefuh?'” Mr. Lopez repeated, increasing his grin until it looked painful.
“Why don’t you close the door and have a seat?” I said. Slowly. Falsely pleasantly. Intentionally. Seething inside. Never let ’em see you sweat and all that.
Still not clued into the situation, he did as I asked and then, still smiling, said, “What can I do for you, Boss?”
I said, “You can start by helping me understand your use of a derogatory word, then we can take it from there.”
“Derogatory?” he asked, obviously puzzled.
“Uh, yeah,” I responded, false pleasantries fading quickly. Go ahead and play dumb, buddy. “Where I come from, a ‘Hefuh’ is a female cow and an unkind way of referring to a woman.”
His normally tanned face became the color of a cotton ball, his eyes opened up until they were perfect, brown circles, and he looked downright horrified.
“Oh, Mrs. Lewis,” he said fervently, “I would never call you anything like that! I have so much respect for you and am so sorry to have hurt your feelings. Can you forgive me?”
Pause. Think for a beat. Weigh my options.
Knowing Mr. Lopez to be a man of God and sincere in his dealings, I forgave him instantly, “Of course. Consider it forgotten. I do have one question, though.”
“Sure,” Mr. Lopez said. “Anything. You name it.”
“That word, ‘Hefuh,’ what is that?” I asked.
He chuckled. I waited, holding my breath. I had forgiven him, but I still wasn’t in a chuckling mood. “Mrs. Lewis,” he said, his smile back in place, “That’s ‘jefa,’ the Spanish word for ‘boss.’ Using it when referring to you is a sign of deep respect, but I’ll have to figure out some other word to use when I want to show you respect.”
Good one, Hefuh, I said to myself. Very nice. Activate the telling-yourself-what-an-idiot-you-are launch sequence.
“Uh, Boss?” Mr. Lopez’s simple question brought me temporarily out of my self-induced punishment.
“Yes?” I returned.
“This isn’t going to show up on my evaluation, is it?”
And we’re smiling, smiling, smiling. “No, and if you’ll excuse me, I need to go into the restroom and wash the egg off my face.”
*Mr. Lopez’s name has been changed to protect the innocent. My name has not been changed. I don’t fall into the “innocent” category in this situation and, therefore, don’t deserve protection.
“Mr. Lopez” and have a wonderful, professional relationship to this day. I have nothing but the utmost of respect for him, although he probably thinks I’m a dork. He might be right.
The Hefuh, Over and Out,