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These Ears Are Deaf To Any Apologies For Any White Person Using the N-Word

My career as a Diversity & Inclusion Strategist, Speaker, Educator and Writer has taught me a few things:

  1. Typically, I have the ability to see and appreciate both sides of an issue; and then to help others understand opposing views.
  2. I’m naturally empathetic; and am earnest in my desire to create empathy for people in others.
  3. 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.

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The Accused Does Not Get to Be the Judge

I’ve stayed in more hotels than a popular hooker; and I’ve heard more confessions than an elderly priest.  As a diversity trainer, I used to travel around the country to various companies and conduct seminars on issues surrounding diversity and inclusion.  As a result, I frequently found myself in budget hotels in the middle of nowhere at night, eating “salads” consisting of only iceberg lettuce and shredded carrots, and listening to issues involving racism, sexism, ageism, gender identity, sexual orientation issues and more during the day.

The one thing I’ve learned about myself is that people seemingly feel comfortable telling me things that they are ashamed of or asking me questions that they would never ask anyone else. When I was on a company’s site, I would become the nameless, raceless, genderless bartender, people felt comfortable showing their darkest parts.

 

Consequently, I’ve heard raw bigotry, extreme pain, and genuine confusion; yet only one sentiment has ever upset me: arrogant dismissal.

That isn’t racist.  That’s not offensive. It was just a joke. She is too sensitive. There is nothing more offensive to me – and more importantly, destructive to the process of creating bonds of mutual understanding, healing and community progress – than when someone dismisses someone else’s experience and feelings and declares themselves the ultimate and determinative judge of their own behavior.

I have spent the same amount of time consoling those who are hurt, angry, offended, or indignant that they have been accused of being offensive or hurtful in the workplace as I have consoling those that they have offended.  Being accused of being biased, prejudice, xenophobic or homophobic goes against the moral fiber of who most of us have been raised to think America represents.   We have been told since we were in elementary school that America is the melting pot, the home of the free, one nation under God.  We watch heartwarming videos of kids of different races playing together and of people of different religions praying together during a tragedy.

On the other hand, racists are portrayed as ignorant, dirty, disgusting characters, who usually wear White robes and burn crosses at night; sexists are very wealthy, arrogant men, who openly harass the office staff; and homophobes as bible-thumping folks who think they can “pray” the LGBTQ out of people.  Understandably, no one wants to associate themselves with those people, so when someone accuses us of being any of those things; most people don’t deny what they said or did but rather will focus on proving that their words or actions were not wrong, and justifying their behavior and character.

The conversations often go something like this:

HR Director: Sarah, Jack feels insulted because you frequently call him “gramps”, have asked him repeatedly when he’s going to retire, and have cut him off at meetings by saying, “Jack doesn’t understand this generation” when he was giving his input about new ideas.

Sarah: That’s ridiculous!  Is he saying that I don’t like old people?

HR Director:  I don’t think he is saying you don’t like old people. He just said that he is offended by your remarks and I want you two to feel comfortable working here and working together.

Sarah: I am comfortable working with Jack!  I love old people!  My grandmother is one of my best friends!  Seriously, I call her almost every other day!  My dog walker is a retired school teacher.  I trust her with my two dogs!  I can’t believe that Jack would accuse me of being ageist!  Perhaps Jack is just too sensitive because he’s the oldest guy around here. Maybe he’s insecure.

HR Director: Let’s bring the conversation back to exactly what things you said that offended Jack.  For instance, have you said that “he wouldn’t understand certain things because he doesn’t know this generation?”

Sarah: Yes, but I didn’t mean any harm by saying that.  Geez, it’s true.  Jack is 69.  He doesn’t know about how tweens will respond to our Twitter campaign.  What I said is not offensive!

HR Director: Jack found it offensive.

Sarah:  I am so hurt.  I really thought Jack liked me. I can’t believe he is attacking me this way.

Sarah is so focused on not being considered a bad person or being labeled ageist that she can’t hear or accept that she may have said something that was offensive to someone else.  She isn’t open to even considering how her words or actions were received by Jack. This common reaction is a pathogen to understanding and growth and causes ill-will, gossip, work issues to spread like an aggressive disease.

None of us gets to decide if we have offended someone. None of us can decide what is offensive to another person. Typically what is offensive is rooted in one’s gender, race, religion, culture, life experiences.  And since none of us can be knowledgeable about all of these things for each person, if someone claims that you offended them; it’s best to learn how and why, so you won’t do it again.  Shouldn’t that be each person’s goal—not to be right—be to do right and strive not to hurt others?