Saturday, October 15, 2016

When African Americans Call A Woman A "Heffah" ("Heifer"), We Don't Mean That She Is Fat

Edited by Azizi Powell

This post documents the differences between the vernacular meanings of the word "heifer" ("heffah") among African Americans and non-African Americans.

The featured passage in this post is a comment from an October 9, 2016 Facebook page which was quoted in an October 14, 2016 dailykos article. Selected comments from that dailykos article about the different vernacular meanings of the word "heifer" are also included in this pancocojams post.

The content of this post is presented for etymological and cultural purposes.

The fact that I'm focusing on the differences between the meanings attributed to the word "heifer" ("heffah") among African Americans and non- African Americans doesn't mean that I'm overlooking the larger issues of racism, sexism, and ageism in the event that is being reported by the Facebook blogger. I've added three dailykos comments in this post's comment section below that express those points better than I can.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to all those who are quoted in this post. Special thanks to Dr. Tamika Cross who wrote that Facebook comment.
As a result of a number of off-topic comments in this post's comment thread (the majority of which I wrote), I want to reiterate that my reason for publishing this post was to document that the word "heifer" (pronounced and spelled "heffah") has different vernacular meanings for African Americans than for non-African Americans. Specifically, when African Americans use the vernacular word "heffah", we aren't fat shaming.


[Summary by Pancocojams Editor: Dr Tamika Cross, a young African American female doctor writes that during a flight on Delta Airlines she tried to come to the assistance of an unresponsive passenger. However, the stewardess didn’t believe that she was a doctor, blocked her access to the passenger, and asked for her medical credentials- all while the emergency was still on-going. The stewardess then readily accepted the help of a White male doctor without asking him for any medical credentials].

..."Was on Delta flight DL945 and someone 2 rows in front of me was screaming for help. Her husband was unresponsive. I naturally jumped into Doctor mode as no one else was getting up. Unbuckle my seatbelt and throw my tray table up and as I'm about to stand up, flight attendant says "everyone stay calm, it's just a night terror, he is alright". I continue to watch the scene closely.

A couple mins later he is unresponsive again and the flight attendant yells "call overhead for a physician on board". I raised my hand to grab her attention. She said to me "oh no sweetie put ur hand down, we are looking for actual physicians or nurses or some type of medical personnel, we don't have time to talk to you" I tried to inform her that I was a physician but I was continually cut off by condescending remarks.

Then overhead they paged "any physician on board please press your button". I stare at her as I go to press my button. She said "oh wow you're an actual physician?" I reply yes. She said "let me see your credentials. What type of Doctor are you? Where do you work? Why were you in Detroit?" (Please remember this man is still in need of help and she is blocking my row from even standing up while Bombarding me with questions).

I respond "OBGYN, work in Houston, in Detroit for a wedding, but believe it or not they DO HAVE doctors in Detroit. Now excuse me so I can help the man in need". Another "seasoned" white male approaches the row and says he is a physician as well. She says to me "thanks for your help but he can help us, and he has his credentials". (Mind you he hasn't shown anything to her. Just showed up and fit the "description of a doctor") I stay seated. Mind blown. Blood boiling. (Man is responding the [sic] his questions and is seemingly better now Thank God)

Then this heifer has the nerve to ask for my input on what to do next about 10 mins later.* I tell her we need vitals and blood sugar. She comes back to report to me a BP of 80/50 (super low, to my non medical peeps) and they can't find a glucometer. We continue down that pathway of medical work up, but the point is she needed my help and I continued to help despite the choice words I had saved up for her. The patient and his wife weren't the problem, they needed help and we were mid flight.

She came and apologized to me several times and offering me skymiles. I kindly refused. This is going higher than her. I don't want skymiles in exchange for blatant discrimination. Whether this was race, age, gender discrimination, it's not right. She will not get away with this....and I will still get my skymiles”.
*I added italics to highlight that sentence.

The comments quoted below are only a sample of the comments that refer to the vernacular meaning/s of the word "heifer" in this October 14, 2016 dailykos article:

These selected comments are presented in relative chronological order based on their posting times, with the earliest comments given first, excerpt for replies. However, the comments may not be in consecutive order since some comments aren't included in this compilation.

I've added [in reply to] to note when a comment is a reply to a previous comment or comments. And I've assigned numbers to all of these comments for referencing purposes only.

From By Leslie Salzillo, 2016/10/14

1. Osiris Oct 14 · 03:21:43 PM
"Dr. Cross writes “Then this heifer has the nerve to ask for my input on what to do next about 10 mins later.,,,”

I can see why she is upset, but calling a female flight attendant a heifer doesn't cover her in glory either."
Pancocojams Editor: This is the blogger's full comment.

2. jan4insight [in reply to] Osiris Oct 14 · 03:28:16 PM
"I agree, that was not good wording, but given the extremity of the situation, I’m willing to give her a pass. This time."

3. eric14850 [in reply to] Osiris Oct 14 · 03:51:43 PM
" “Heifer” doesn’t begin to cover my anger and my anger about this flight attendant stems from merely reading this story. And “heifer” is an apt term. Earlier in my life I was a dairy farmer. Spring heifers are arrogant, self absorbed, pushy, and obnoxious."

4. frankzappatista [in replace to] eric14850 Oct 14 · 04:30:20 PM
"And they stare at you stupidly with their mouths upen. Even skinny women are referred to as heifers — it’s more about stupid than weight. Heifers are actually pretty trim compared to a cow."

5. Wizznilliam [in reply to] Osiris Oct 14 · 06:16:58 PM
"What insult would have worked for you??? It is not against some weird protocol to want to insult someone who has insulted/disrespected you. Heifer is a pretty tame insult. I’m sure I would have said a LOT worse."

6. Osiris [in reply to] Wizznilliam Oct 14 · 06:57:34 PM
"I don't know, what weird protocol is it not to call someone a cow? If I called someone a heifer your calling them a fat cow where I am . And what did she do really ? Not believe someone was an MD? The horror!

and I believe you would have said a lot worse."

7. Tom Frank [in reply to] Osiris Oct 14 · 03:45:13 PM
"I would not read that much into that particular word. It gets used pretty loosely among black women. Try to see it like another dialect of English — someone from the UK would hear ‘wanker’ a lot more strongly than we do and a brit would never say ‘fanny’ pack, but at the same time they use the c-word without thinking twice."

8. Hilbro218 [in reply to] Tom Frank Oct 14 · 06:01:05 PM
"Sorry, you’re really reaching….."
Pancocojams Editor: This is that blogger's full comment.

9. sepiasiren [in reply to] Hilbro218 Oct 14 · 09:36:15 PM
"No, he isn’t. As southern black woman who has used the term heffah, it is not a reference to weight, no more than pus-y is reference to a cat. It’s slang and generally used as a euphemism for B—ch. Now can we get back to the real victim and the real concern which is racism?"
Pancocojams Editor: This is how that comment was written in that post.

10. Siris [in reply to] Osiris Oct 14 · 04:17:05 PM
"She works in Texas. It is common to call women, heifers."

11. Catte Nappe [in reply to] Siris Oct 14 · 05:49:00 PM
"Umm, I don’t think so. Been living here in Texas for over 40 years, and I don’t know that I’ve ever heard that term used, let alone commonly."

12. praying manatheist [in reply to] Catte Nappe Oct 14 · 06:38:12 PM
"You’re wasting your breath Catte. The pitchforks are out and the torches are lit.

The same people who are now giving fat shaming a pass would have gone ballistic in other circumstances. Suddenly, fat shaming is perfectly ok with these folks if it is ‘deserved’....

And make no mistake, I am from Texas as well and heifer is a deragotory term for a fat woman."
Pancocojams Editor: This is a partial quote. The blogger also referred to Donald Trump. My interpretation of that portion of that comment was that the blogger was implying that that Republican Presidential candidate's actions and the atmosphere that he has created has made it more acceptable for Americans to insult people who they consider to be unattractive.

13. kobaltkween [reply to] praying manatheist Oct 14 · 07:06:36 PM
"Then maybe it’s just that you’re not black. Because “heifer” doesn’t mean fat unless maybe you’re talking about white guys using it. Among all black women I know, it means, “You’re being a disrespectful dumbass, ,getting in my damn way, and tempting me to snatch you bald-headed.” The heifer aspect is related to being dumb and an obstacle.

You might think it’s fat shaming, but I’ve never, ever seen heard a black person be that subtle about calling someone fat. Thick girls are way too popular in the community for that."

14. StillAmused Oct 14 · 05:09:48 PM
" “Heifer” seems extraordinarily generous when addressing a racist farmyard creature whose job, ironically, depends upon keeping her weight under control by any means necessary."

15. howabout me Oct 14 · 05:25:55 PM
"Just have to say: umbrage over heifer? Really? Give me a break. So then, this doctor, who has put up with crap for college, med school, residency, and the beat goes on, can’t even select a choice word? Really? Aren’t we guilty here of false equivalency? For crikey’s sake, we expect her to be perfection personified after she has been so thoroughly dismissed, marginalized, disrespected? And this doctor, in truth, went higher—she helped. She helped. She helped."

16. peagreen Oct 14 · 05:55:53 PM
"just putting in my two cents regarding the word “heifer”.

I don’t like it but at all. However “weight issues” are not relevant in my unfortunate personal experience with that word. My mother used that word not infrequently to my sister and myself...and any other female she was angry with. “That little heifer” , for example. It was meant as a general demeaning term for any female. Believe me weight was no part of it. I believe it to be a term that came out of her very southern upbringing since my grandmother used the term as well.

Too bad any crap like that gets used by anyone. Reflecting before hitting the post button is always a good plan for everyone. Not something that happens a lot unfortunately."

17. SninkyPoo Oct 14 · 05:59:21 PM
"Thanks for explaining “h****r!” I was struggling to figure out what taboo word that could be!

FWIW, I doubt a flight attendant had weight issues. And I have heard “heifer” used the way “cow” is used — as a pejorative way to describe a female in general, without any body-shaming or fat-shaming implied. Like one of my favorite insults from an episode of “Coronation Street” — “You dozy mare!”

As for “sweetie!?!??!?!?!” GAH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I would have used heifer — without asterisks — in my rant, too."
Pancocojams Editor- Apparently an amended form of the word "heifer" was written with asterisks in an earlier version of that dailykos article.

18. MikePhoenix Oct 14 · 06:01:25 PM
"Actually as far as the “heifer” comment goes. I think that Ms. Cross may have been referring to the FA’s bovine intellect, not her weight."

19. bug918 Oct 14 · 08:07:07 PM
"I see Dr. Cross’ all-too-common story of racism and sexism in the good ol’ U.S. of A. is getting pushed aside in these comments because everybody now would rather focus on the NONFACTOR of her calling the racist FA a heifer. That’s one of the MILDEST things she could’ve called her, but now THAT’S the story. … Wow."
Pancocojams Editor:This is the blogger's full comment.

20. sepiasiren Oct 14 · 09:15:20 PM
"*Big Heavy Sigh* Again? Can a black person point out they’ve been victimized by racism without some phony outrage, pearl clutching, false dichotomy shift? I live in GA where heffah can mean “girlfriend”, “girl” or “B—“ depending on the situation, in fact, heffah is a euphemism for when you don't want to use foul langue in anger, and this lady had every right to be angry. No, lets us not focus on her legitimate anger, let us focus on an angry word used in her legitimate anger? When you are angry are you pulling out a thesaurus of acceptable insults and terms? Why hold her up to a standard you yourself wouldn't use when angry? I mean, Are you SERIOUS??? Do you think someone who says “HOLLA!” is really asking you to scream at them too…? I tell you what, I would not have show this lady’s restraint and would have used words that those crying about heifer would probably be having a mental meltdown over and using terms like internal misogyny. She wasn’t fat shaming using the word. She was trying to find a “polite” slang to describe her anger e.g. trying not to cuss that heffah out. You guys aren’t new to planet earth and you know slang terms are not literal, so stop trying to deflect from the real issue. Obvious deflection is not only obvious, it is sick and wrong. It’s akin to amn pointing to ahrot skit when a woman says she is raped. Those even harping on this non sequitur ought to be ashamed of themselves. Yes, racism is uncomfortable — but let us not lose focus on who was victimized here. Dayum."
Pancocojams Editor:This is blogger's full comment.

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  1. Here are three comments from that October 14, 2016 dailykos dairy that refer to the racism, sexism, and ageism that Dr. Tamika Cross experienced during her interaction with that Delta Airlines Flight Attendant:

    Bradondo Oct 14 · 02:22:41 PM
    "Tamika Cross is a hero, plain and simple, and was nearly prevented in her attempt to save a man's life by an ignorant bigot. Sexism and racism are twin rots in this country that need to be rooted out and obliterated. We need to talk about these incidents, bring them into the light and refuse to allow them to be thrust back into the shadows. We need to call out racism and sexism wherever and whenever we see it."

    lupinella Oct 14 · 04:15:24 PM
    "Wow, that flight attendant endangered a passenger's life due to her bias. The fact that her idea of what a doctor looked like didn't comport with how she perceived Dr. Cross shows how narrow her worldview is. I find that especially gobsmacking in someone whose career involves both travel & seeing a large cross-section of humanity.

    And then calling Dr. Cross 'sweetie' - just No."

    ThePhlebob Oct 14 · 04:17:39 PM
    "The subject of the story summed it up right here:

    “I don't want skymiles in exchange for blatant discrimination. Whether this was race, age, gender discrimination, it's not right.”
    She hit the trifecta: She was all three."

    1. Here's a link to an article about another young, Black female doctor who was on a Delta Airlines flight and had the same experience as was described in this post: October 16, 2016

      In that case, when Dr. Ashley Denmark responded to an announced request for medical assistance, a flight attendant didn't believe she was a doctor and told her to have a seat while two nurses attended to the passenger.

      Here's an excerpt from that article
      "What exactly is it that inspires seemingly normal people to prevent qualified individuals from offering their professional assistance? In life-or-death situations, do we really have time to be prejudiced?

      A report by the Washington Post, points to the phenomenon of “implicit bias” as the culprit. “Overt bias certainly exists, but there is also a growing body of scientific literature that’s revealing an even more uncomfortable truth,” according to the article. “Deep-seated unconscious biases help steer our thinking and behavior — even when we don’t realize it.”"

  2. Hello ma,am so glad to have come across these great blog,pls i really need your help on these burning questions

    way back in the late 80's and early 90's there was these great songstress Funmi Adams who sang beautiful songs like Nigeria my beloved country,Ina gizon yake,All we need is love,omo laso,Omode o,ahyhye yaro,nnem nnem and so on and then disappeared without no trace..her videos also disappeared for 10years was hunting for her songs all over but didn't see till we set up a team on the biggest nigeria forum Nairaland to search for her songs we gt one but was crappy i personally uploaded it on youtube but wasnt a good version,now after searchn all over the internet for her whereabouts i was able to meet her saxophonist who told me tht he hasnt seen her since 1993 and told me to contact prof eugba of which our search team contacted just yesterday and he said aunty funmi lived in Pittsburgh but he hasnt hear from her in is how we need your help ma..the whole country and 80's kid are curious about where she is and how to get her clean videos ,also you are in Pittsburgh and could help in locating her and unveiling the mystery surrounding her disappearance..your response will be highly appreciated ma sorry about any typos and error..was typing in such a hurry

    below is the link ti the thread

    thanks ma

    1. Greetings, BeenHealthy.

      Thanks for your compliments.

      I love reading different nairaland forum discussion threads.
      I haven't read the full discussion about Funmi Adams whose link you gave

      Unfortunately, I don't have any personal contacts with the Nigerian community in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. But I'll contact some other people who I know, some organizations (for instance I think the University of Pittsburgh had an African students organization years ago. I'll check to see if they still have one and if people there know anything about Funmi Adams whereabouts.)

      My concern is if I located someone who knows Funmi Adams, she may not want to be contacted OR/AND she may not want her information posted online. Maybe she has a publicist or some email address that she wouldn't mind be shared.

      My email address is azizip17 at yahoo dot com. Please contact me there about Funmi Adams or other subjects.

      I'll do my best to find out some information that might be of some help to the Nigerian communities at nairaland's forum and others.

      Thanks again!

    2. Thanks much ma for the update i really appreciate and will send you an email..thanks and God bless

    3. I recognize that this is an off-topic subject, but given the format of this blog, when visitors write a comment or question about a topic that hasn't been featured on pancocojams, I understand why they would post that comment or question in the comment section of the latest blog post.

      To provide a small update about Nigerian singer Funmi Adams - the nairaland forum's discussion about Funmi Adams (the link to that first page is given above) seems to imply that Ms. Adams wishes to remain out of the public's eye. One of the last comments in that discussion from Dr. Akin Euba, Andrew W. Mellon Professor Emeritus of Music, University of Pittsburgh (retired in 2011) is pertinent to that conclusion. In 2015 [?] Dr. Euba responded to an email from a nairaland blogger about Funmi Adams. Dr. Euba shared that he had worked with Funmi Adams in the 1980s and was aware that she had lived in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where he lives. However, he hadn't seen or heard from her in years.
      I'm not hopeful that I can add to this information :o(
      and, as I mentioned, it seems to me that Funmi Adams doesn't want to be part of the public discourse, regardless of her fans' love for her and her music.
      As a result of the comment from Beenhealthy, I learned about this excellent online resource: African Heritage in Classical Music
      Dr. Akin Euba is featured in that blog along with 51 other African musicians and African composers.

      As a person who is interested in Nigerian cultures and other African cultures, I'm ashamed to say that I didn't know about Funmi Adams, Dr. Akin Euba, or about until reading the first email from Beenhealthy.

      I have received an email from Betterhealthy and will repeat part of this comment to him.