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A word, a hair-trigger racial sensitivity, a job lost

City hall flap in Washington over the word 'niggardly' pushes politicalcorrectness to the edge of the ridiculous

By Lynda Hill / February 2, 1999



Sometimes Americans get hung up on words.

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Imagine a Puerto Rican employee talking with her boss about a cleaning service that was recently hired. The boss tells her the company promises "spic and span" results. In today's climate of racial sensitivity, is this a conceivable cause for the Puerto Rican to be offended?

An African-American friend of mine who attended Brown University, applied for a paralegal job and asked the interviewer whether other Brown people worked at the firm. The interviewer replied that there were some others; but the interviewer was referring to black employees. Was the misunderstanding cause for my African-American friend to respond with outrage?

Carolivia Herron, a black professor at California State University, wrote a children's book about a black girl with "nappy" hair. A white teacher at Brooklyn Public School 75, trying to be politically correct in teaching students about cultural differences while helping them to read, used the book in her class of black students. Parents protested and the teacher transferred to another school. Were the parents' concerns valid or were reading scores a more urgent issue?

When I was a child, and my good friend who is light-skinned called me "black," or so I thought, I began to cry, despite his protestations that he was only naming the colors of the passing cars. At the time, "black" was considered demeaning, whereas during the late 1960s the term became fashionable. Was being called black cause for a lifelong trauma, or an indicator of the way that times change and words and feelings change with them?

Americans have major issues with words. That's probably why at some time or other during everyone's youth we all repeated the chant "sticks and stones may break your bones but names can never hurt you."

Saying we must never utter words that offend anyone pushes the limits of plausibility to the extreme. The sort of moral code that demands self-policing of spoken vocabulary is a pathetic display of paranoia. The latest example of this paranoia burst into controversy last week at city hall in Washington, D.C.

David Howard, the mayor's white ombudsman, said he would have to be "niggardly" with the scarce funds in the department's budget. One of his two interlocutors, Marshall Brown, who is black, left the room in anger. Mr. Howard offered his resignation, and Mayor Anthony Williams accepted it.

Niggardly means stingy. Its roots are in ancient languages. There is no evidence the word has any relation to the racial slur it may sound like. To say that being insulted by the use of "niggardly" is showing sensitivity to a racial epithet is to say that pride is a pathetic trait not worth having.

It's unfortunate that "niggardly" is equated with a lack of generosity. But if a person reacts to the word because it sounds offensive, he risks displaying anything but generosity. Poor vocabulary skills are only the catalyst. Becoming visibly angry in this situation, means sacrificing self-respect and dignity.

I was educated well enough to have been taught the meaning of "niggardly" in a junior high school English class. I have subsequently encountered the term numerous times in situations similar to the one that caused Mr. Brown to storm out of the room. Hearing the term may be jarring even when the term is familiar and may even seem to be a reason for questioning the speaker's motives.

There is a lesson here. In a work situation when someone says something you dislike, the question to ask is whether you understood what was said. Is the word unfamiliar? If the answer is yes, but you still feel sensitive to what the implications may be, then ask yourself if the embarrassment of not understanding the English language is greater than the perceived offense of hearing even the "N" word.

Does being hurt because you are confronted with language you think is offensive mean wearing your feelings on your sleeve? At what cost, not just to yourself but to the larger community?

Brown reportedly telephoned Howard to request an apology. But in doing so, what message did Brown send? And what kind of example was Howard setting by resigning over this word game? And what does Mayor Williams communicate by accepting Howard's resignation?

Ethical standards, we need. But we aren't going to get them when an occasion arises to show we can move beyond pettiness and we choose, instead, to abide the tyranny of political correctness.

Howard claims he doesn't want to be part of an anti-PC backlash, and neither do I. But if a line is not drawn, we are likely to plunge into an abyss of silliness.

*Lynda Hill is an English professor at Temple University, in Philadelphia. She is the author of 'Social Rituals' (Howard University Press, 1996).