Chris Costa may have been branded a racist recently. Or maybe not. It’s hard for him to tell at this point. The only thing Costa knows for sure is that two weeks ago, he was fired from his job at Buca di Beppo in Dupont Circle. And that the firing was connected to him using a word folks don’t hear much outside the D.C. area: “’Bama.”
A 32-year-old white guy, Costa says he was training to be a waiter at the eatery when things went awry. “I was trying to do my thing,” he says. Sitting in a booth at the end of his shift, Costa was shocked when two enraged coworkers burst out of the back and began screaming at him. He had set a table wrong. “I think I used too many spoons,” Costa recalls. Apparently, standards at the Italian restaurant chain are so high, his two fellow employees—who he calls kids in their early 20s—couldn’t abide it. “They’re just all up in my face,” Costa says. Spoon placement wasn’t that big a deal to Costa, so he yelled back. “You two are acting like a bunch of ’Bamas!”
The phrase hushed the room. “What is that?” one of the infuriated colleagues asked. Costa didn’t feel the need to explain. “You’re just acting like a ’Bama,” he said. “Fuck you, man,” said one of his co-workers. “I’ll take you outside!”
It never came to that. Costa managed to defuse the situation, and everyone went home. He forgot about it.
Two days later, Costa arrived at work, only to be ordered to clear out. The reason why? “I heard you called him a ’Bama,” a manager told him. The manager asked if it was a racial slur.
A confused Costa explained he wasn’t being a racist. Later, when he thought about the people he had called ’Bamas—a blonde white guy and a light-skinned Salvadoran—he was even more confused. (A supervisor at the restaurant confirmed that the incident happened but had no further comment.)
What had happened, apparently, had only a little to do with race, and a lot to do with geography and local culture. As an insult, ’Bama originated in the District’s black community—but it doesn’t only refer to black people, and unlike a certain word starting with “N,” it’s not the kind of thing white folks shouldn’t be throwing around. If you’re from around here, you probably already know ’Bama is just another way of calling someone out; a ’Bama is a fool, a punk, a herb, someone who simply doesn’t get it.
Unfortunately for Costa, it seemed the people in charge at Buca di Beppo didn’t know any of that.
By the time Costa got fired for using it, ’Bama had been around for quite some time, and its meaning and use had changed. Most likely, the word was first used to put down recent arrivals to D.C.’s black neighborhoods from southern states—especially Alabama, says cultural anthropologist and long time Smithsonian staffer John Franklin. “It’s had currency over several generations,” Franklin says. It was a way of calling someone a black hick: “There was some disdain for people who didn’t live in the city and weren’t sophisticated.” The word had particular weight during the Great Migration, when many African Americans left the rural South for northern cities. Then, the point was to differentiate the newer arrivals from the longtime Washingtonians—who worried that the countrified Southerners flooding the District would reflect badly on the whole community. It was, essentially, the way D.C.’s black residents called one of their own a redneck. (Around the same time, German Jews who had already been in the U.S. for a few decades coined their own slang term to put down their less sophisticated Russian and Polish cousins—and thus, “kike” was born, only becoming a generalized ethnic slur afterwards.)
Eventually, ’Bama lost most of the geographic connotations it once had, and melted into just another piece of regional slang. Even white kids like Costa learned what it meant, picking it up by osmosis from the culture around them. Costa says his own definition of ’Bama is that it refers to a person who is “stupid.” He spent most of his life in the Baltimore-Washington area, and says he and his friends grew up using “the B-word” all the time.
If Costa had taken a job at Marvelous Market in Georgetown instead of Buca di Beppo, he might still be working. Dressed in orange T-shirts and black slacks, the predominantly black staff there on a recent Saturday seems to have a good handle on the word and its nuances. “We might see him and he not dressed like us, we might be like, ‘He a ’Bama,’” says 27-year-old D.C. native Kimberly Kenner. Saying the word seems to make her crack up. She hunches her shoulders and a big smile lights across her face.
Whether you’re a ’Bama is strongly linked to your sense of style. (Or lack thereof.) When Kenner challenges Jirard Goudeaus to define the word, the lanky, dreadlocked 22-year-old, who grew up in LeDroit Park, paints a picture: “Say you got a suit on but you got some sandals and socks,” he says—that’s ’Bama. So is “wearing T-shirts that come down to your ankles.”
But it’s not just a matter of clothing. “I mean, you can be a ’Bama for anything,” explains Goudeaus. It can mean being rude, ignorant or awkward. “Someone comes in and starts gettin’ real loud and gettin’ to cussin’,” says Kenner, “that’s ’Bama.”
That sounds close to Costa’s situation. And when Goudeaus hears about the incident, he’s amused. “They didn’t know what the word meant,” he says of the Buca di Beppo bosses. “That’s irony,” he says, upon being told Costa was suspected of racism. Both residents say ’Bama has nothing to do with race or even being from the South. They say a white person can use the word, though it might sound a little funny.
“D.C. people got they own lingo,” says Kenner. “If you ain’t hip to it, you can be left behind.”
And maybe that’s it. Maybe Costa’s coworkers had the distinct feeling of being left behind, and that somehow felt as offensive and dirty as racism. As one of the nation’s most rapidly gentrifying cities, D.C. would seem to be on the battlefront of an urban American feud. And maybe it’s not between “black and white” or “rich and poor.”
Maybe it’s between the non-’Bamas and the ’Bamas. The people who get it, and the people who don’t.
That fight plays out all over the city, all the time. And sure, it overlaps plenty with the other ones (especially those having to do with race, which in D.C. also tend to be the ones having to do with wealth). But it doesn’t have to.
What defines the terms of the ’Bama vs. non-’Bama battle is a little more diffuse. You might be a ’Bama if you wear sandals with your suit. But you’re definitely a ’Bama if you move to the District and suddenly set about trying to make it conform to whatever image you have of the way life should be, without paying any attention to the way life actually is here already.
If ’Bama refers to anyone in D.C., categorically, it’s to those newcomers who refuse to adjust to the life and culture that has sustained the District for years, existing alongside—but not necessarily a part of—the federal city. Yes, lower crime rates and nice parks are great, but so is knowing how to get along, how to subscribe to the collective conventions that make District life easier. You don’t turn on a fellow worker at a service job, or steal a bench from the homeless (as happened last year on Capitol Hill), or freak out about the nostalgic tunes piping from ice cream trucks (as some Hill East residents did earlier this spring). If you do—that’s just ’Bama.
When Alex Joseph, 30, who’s been in D.C. for a year, tries to join in on the Marvelous Market conversation, he’s outed immediately. He defines ’Bama as “a sorry person.” Evidently, that’s not quite right. Goudeaus and Kenner scoff at him. “He’s a ’Bama for not knowing,” says Goudeaus.