DARE TO ASK: Say nay, nay, to this use of Sheneneh?
By PHILLIP MILANO, The Times-Union
If someone is upset with you and waving their hand with fingers outstretched
in the air a few inches from your face, is it considered racist to say "You need
to stop going all Shanaynay on me"?
Kay, white, Jacksonville
That would be racist regardless of what the other person was doing. Obviously
the use of the name Shanaynay refers to the sometimes creative names of
African-Americans. If you said "Star Jones" instead of "Shanaynay," it might be
different because Star is a particular person known for certain things and you
could mean "You need to stop buying all those Payless shoes."
F., white female, California
That's been out of style since the show Martin, which featured the character
Lynne H., Louisville, Ky.
If I was doing that to someone, and then they said something like that, I'd
probably burst out laughing. That being said, I probably would never say that
unless I was joking around with my friends.
Cassy, 22, white, Jacksonville
Would this even be an issue if I was mimicking, say, an Italian gesture and
saying "Don't get all Mario on me?" As an outsider to America, I think black
people seem to be hypersensitive about the color of their skin. In Australia I
think we understand that . . . there are generalizations that are true to
certain cultures and/or races, and it's fine to poke fun at people as long as
it's done in a non-aggressive way.
Jason G., Australian, Germany
Du-uh, it's Sheneneh, not Shanaynay or Shenaenae. (OK, we confess we hadn't
heard of her, either.)
"She" was actually a he, a "ghetto girl" portrayed by Martin Lawrence on the
Fox sitcom Martin in the mid-'90s. Sheneneh Jenkins was a sassy, stereotypically
over-the-top character who shouted phrases like "Oh no you di-in't!"
So here's the key, said John R. Rickford, professor of linguistics at
Stanford University and author of Spoken Soul: The Story of Black English: Is
the phrase in question being used in a general way to try to paint African-
Americans with a broad brush, or is it referring to the specific character on
If the latter, that absorbs a bit of the sting on the offensiveness scale, he
said. But let's say the person had thrown out a "creative-sounding" name not
tied to a TV character (may we humbly suggest "LaShaquanda"). "In that case, she
might be disparaging an aspect of black cultural behavior in general," Rickford
said. "If she's talking to a black person and says that, it would be interpreted
as a put-down."
He stressed there were no "hard-and-fast" rules, because context is so
important - though there is still "a lot of sensitivity of boundaries between
black and white styles."
"It's not like a committee sits down and says this is OK and this isn't ...
it's hard to draw a line."
Phillip Milano, author of I Can't Believe You Asked That! (Perigee),
moderates cross-cultural dialogue at Y? The National Forum on People's
Differences. Visit www.yforum.com to submit questions and answers, or mail to
Phillip Milano, c/o The Florida Times-Union, P.O. Box 1949, Jacksonville, FL
32231. Include contact information. For Dare to Ask podcasts, go to
Jacksonville.com keyword: milano.