Sticks and Stones
Once, at another job, in another state, a co-worker who was struggling to meet a deadline asked if I could "send that little black girl over" to help in his office. The individual to whom he referred, an African-American woman in her 20s, worked in my office, and the answer to his question was no. The person you have in mind is not properly spoken of in the demeaning terms you have just used. She has a name. Besides, I'm not in the habit of "sending" people anywhere. Oh, and by the way, get your act together and do your own work.
The man, of course, was deeply offended. He certainly didn't mean anything by what he had just said, he assured me. He couldn't remember the woman's name, so he was trying to describe her. And he certainly wasn't a racist. He got along with everybody. (Right.)
The incident, which occurred many years ago, stands out in my mind because it was one of the first occasions, in an office environment, when I actually said what I wanted to say in response to an offensively wrong comment, rather than remaining silent — as though not acknowledging the comment might somehow erase it and its effects — then wishing later that I spoken up.
It took no particular courage for me to call the man on his remarks: He wasn't my boss, simply an incompetent jerk whom everybody knew would eventually be fired for one reason or another — which he was.
I'm not sure who came up with the chirpy little childhood chant we all learned about sticks and stones breaking bones but names never hurting. Names do hurt. Language hurts — it has great and lasting power.
Yet people who use language indiscriminately — whether in public or private — often insist that they "don't mean anything" by what they say. Or that a particular insult is "just a figure of speech." Or that their words are taken out of context. Or, if they are backed into a corner and pressured to apologize, always preface their apology with the handy little "If I offended anyone. . ." phrase, the one that transfers blame to those thin-skinned, overly sensitive souls who somehow took offense at offensive sentiments. Sometimes I'm not sure which is more frightening — the notion that people, especially those in high public office, fully understand the effects of what they say and say it anyway, or the possibility that they really are clueless.
The lesson of language, most especially as it relates to race and racial matters, is one that needs pretty constant reinforcement. And sometimes the process is difficult. A couple of years ago, courtesy of another employer, I participated in a year-long series of discussions on race and racism. Our group met monthly for some very candid conversation. As is true of most efforts like this, it was more beneficial and certainly more eye-opening for the white members than for any of the people of color who were a part of it. (One colleague, a black woman, said it felt to her that she spent the year "validating the epiphanies" of the white members of the group.)
Over the course of several months, we developed sufficient trust so that we were able to raise some tough issues and face some hard truths. It was not always comfortable — I'm not sure such discussions can or should be — but it was a valuable exercise in perspective.
At one of the early sessions, a middle-aged white woman used the term "color-blind," saying she did not see a person as black or white, but as an individual.
A young black man spoke up quickly: "You have the privilege of being color-blind because you are in the racial majority. If you are in the minority, you don't have that privilege."
Most white participants had to get beyond the defensive, "I'm a nice person, I'm not a racist" mind-set and open their minds to understanding the difference between being racist on a personal level and being the beneficiary of institutionalized racism or racist attitudes that are so pervasive we hardly notice them.
Beginning the discourse and having the conversations requires a blend of candor and trust and sensitivity that is hard to achieve. It takes time and commitment. But it is an effort worth making.