My career as a Diversity & Inclusion Strategist, Speaker, Educator and Writer has taught me a few things:
- Typically, I have the ability to see and appreciate both sides of an issue; and then to help others understand opposing views.
- I’m naturally empathetic; and am earnest in my desire to create empathy for people in others.
- I believe in human error and the power of forgiveness
BUT, notwithstanding this experience I have come to the conclusion that an apology when a non-White person uses the word, “Nigger” is simply not sufficient, satisfactory, or acceptable. It is, in fact, offensive.
My ears are deaf to any “apologies” for a non-Black person using the N-Word.
A fundamental premise in my book, Neversays: 25 Things You Should Never Say To Keep Your Job and Friends, is that most people in the world are good people; yet we are also highly uninformed people (at least about people who are different from us). Most of us typically grow up around, go to church with, play sports with, and go to school with people whom are very similar to us. So when we go to into the world where there are people of different races, cultures, sexual identities, religions, socio-economics and political belief systems, it is unsurprising that all of us at one time or another have been uncomfortable, said inappropriate things (or become mute), and had conflicts.
I wasn’t raised around people who were openly gay, I didn’t have any Jewish friends growing up; and so I’ve had to learn about my fellow citizens of the world in order to function respectfully (and effectively). Along my journey towards better understanding, I have made mistakes and have offended some people — I’m sure more people than I am even aware of. That doesn’t make me a bad person. It makes me human. It also makes me a person who needs to continually be learning about those around me, so I can do better and strive to always interact respectfully with them. My intention is for my words to create connections and not conflict; to make all whom interact with me feel seen and respected; not judged and insulted.
So intent should be considered in all interactions – including in those when someone insults another. People offend other people all of the time; but most people don’t purposefully offend others (if for nothing else, most people do not want the repercussions of a tense/hostile work environment, meetings with HR, poor performance reviews or the bad reputation that often come with offending a co-worker). Trust me when I tell you that the woman who asked to touch your hair; the man who asked you as a Puerto Rican where he and his family should visit in Mexico; and the guy from IT who asked when you “decided” to be gay were not intentionally trying to offend you. In most cases, what they said was ignorant, but not malicious. In the best case scenario, you will take the time to calmly educate the offender and they will openly receive the message, learn, and do better.
That said, a White person using the N-word is a wholly different circumstance. If there is one thing that every White person knows about Black people and Black culture; it is the history, ugliness, level of insult, hatred and power behind that word. It is a word that was specifically used by White people to demean and control Black people that they had enslaved; it is a word that was used to immediately inform a Black person that they were unequal to a White person— that they were effectively on the level of livestock. The word was created specifically for that purpose. The word’s history and ugliness has been well-documented (some would say over-documented) in movies, television shows, documentaries and books. Children learn about its hateful and dividing history starting in 2nd grade history classes and will continue to learn about it every year until they graduate from college. Therefore, when it is used, it is used with the clear intention of degrading and insulting a Black person.
It is more than a word. It is more than name-calling. It is an assault. It is the bleeding wound of America’s history. It is a word, when uttered compels images of enslaved ancestors being whipped, picking cotton under the scorching sun, of dead Black bodies hanging from trees, ancestors being sold on auction blocks along with livestock. It is a word that says “you are nothing.” As the Swastika is for Jewish people; it represents the ugliest most painful time in history. It is hate.
Hateful attacks must be treated as such by society, but its institutions and by the perpetrators. Institutions need to stop treating the use of the word the same way one would a person calling another “fat” or “stupid”, and start treating it as the assault that it is. The use of the word Nigger, the writing of Swastikas, the depiction of a noose are akin to an employee striking another employee and should be treated as such. To do any differently is do deny our country’s history to literally sanction a hostile work environment for any minority, and to guarantee the alienation and very likely the resignation of the victim.
Like the institution, the offender should also recognize the severity of their actions and recognize that the apology is just the beginning of a process. They must demonstrate their desire to change and prepare themselves to work respectfully in a diverse environment. Calling a Black person a Nigger doesn’t stem from implicit bias; it stems from prejudice and anger. For an offender to be allowed to continue to work in a place with Black people, he must attend therapy (as racism is a sickness) and cultural sensitivity training; just as he would have to attend anger management if he had hit another person.
The use of that word — and the pain inflicted by its use — is not, and can never be unintentional. Therefore, a mere “I’m sorry” will never and should never be sufficient.