Pursuit of Racial Sensitivity Keeps Tripping Over Words
Trevor W. Coleman, Editorial Page Writer
Detroit Free Press, Thursday, February
© Copyright 1999 Detroit Free Press
once attended a party at which I was the only black person. I
remembered it as I heard about America's latest flap over racial
politics, language and sensitivity -- the forced resignation of
a white Washington, D.C., city official who was called on the
carpet for using the word "niggardly" in a conversation
with two black city employees.
party I attended was actually a small gathering of struggling
young poets. (OK, I admit it. I'm a closet poet.) The host was
an elegant older woman with a soft Southern accent. As I recall,
her name was Carol.
was the publisher of a small poetry magazine that circulated in
mid-Ohio and gave all of us dreamers a shot at being published
and maybe winning a little money to boot.
point late in the evening, with everyone feeling rather cheery
from a few too many drinks, Carol jokingly accused one of the
guests of reneging on a deal.
know what that makes you?" she blared to the person across
the room. "A reneger! That's right, you're just an ole reneger."
room fell silent, save for a few self-conscious chuckles.
sense nervous eyes darting in my direction. Tension was rising.
in the middle of the room, Carol's eyes locked on mine. She looked
like a deer in the headlights.
of course I knew exactly what it meant to renege. I knew what
Carol was trying to say. I had no sense that she was particularly
racist or even insensitive to racial issues.
at that frozen moment in time, I had to wonder, was that phrase
really necessary? I stared at her, slowly shaking my head. She
said nothing. I didn't either, just letting her feel the discomfort.
incident revealed the peculiar kind of madness to being black
in America today, where racial minorities often have hair-trigger
racial sensibilities and whites profoundly underestimate the depth
of the psychic damage that racist behavior has done to our society.
type of madness most recently expressed itself in all its outrageous
glory by the ridiculous overreaction to the unfortunate choice
of words by David Howard, director of the District of Columbia's
Office of the Public Advocate.
also manifested in the suspiciously hysterical reaction by so
many white talking heads to his ouster.
was let go by the city's new mayor, Anthony Williams, who is black,
about two weeks ago. Howard was talking with three of his aides
during a budget review, stressing the need to pinch pennies to
help D.C. residents in emergencies. He said the city will have
to be "niggardly with this fund because it's not going to
be a lot of money."
of the aides were terribly offended and filed a complaint with
the mayor over a perceived racial slur. Howard, who realized he
had made a faux pas -- even if he was technically correct to use
a word that means miserly but sounds like something else -- apologized
and tendered his resignation, which Mayor Williams accepted.
had the story broken than out from the shadows came all the conservative
commentators screeching about those hypersensitive and subliterate
Negroes, who have just gone too far.
Will, Tony Snow and others appeared to be on the verge of apoplectic
convulsions, their indignation boiling over into rage against
what they perceived not only as that constant pain -- political
correctness -- but black racism, too.
priests of the right -- and stewards of the King's English --
would be a lot more convincing if they ever showed even a modicum
of concern about the seemingly endless acts of racial ignorance
or even hostility that comes from their side of this nation's
great racial divide.
yet to see or hear Will, Snow, editorial writers for the Wall
Street Journal or any other conservative commentator call on their
cronies to denounce and repudiate Senate Majority Leader Trent
Lott, R-Miss., and Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., for their ties to the
notoriously racist and anti-Semitic Council of Conservative Citizens.
I'm not the only person to have noticed this. But I have yet to
see any of them write an intellectually honest or even reasonably
thoughtful piece explaining their niggardly views on racial justice.
what you get are sophomoric arguments in silly columns and commentaries
filled with platitudes about color-blindness and the evils of
so-called reverse discrimination. Their writings reveal not a
hint of understanding about the complexities of America's racial
choice of words -- given the climate where he worked -- was, well,
weird. If I worked in an institution dominated by women, I would
never use the word bitch to refer to a female dog -- even though
I would be grammatically correct.
Mayor Williams should have never accepted Howard's resignation
(a decision he rescinded Wednesday).
have simply told him to be a bit more thoughtful in his choice
of words. Case closed. Now go back to work.
have told the aides to lighten up.
entire episode, like the one I experienced at the party, was just
another racial Rorschach test that we screwed up.
the emotionally, spiritually and morally wounded people that we
are, both sides continue to see and hear things that are not really