A Time for Words to Die? The cast of characters in this drama is both short and long at the same time. Theplayers are Anthony A. Williams, mayor of Washington DC; David Howard, the directorof the Office of the Public Advocate; Marshall Brown, a staff worker in theaforementioned Office; and last, a minor character, John Fanning, witness to thebeginning of a debacle concerning race relations, hyper-sensitivity and irrational anger. They are African American, white, African American and white, in that order. Theremainder of the cast are African Americans in specific, minorities in general and the evilwhite man because every good story needs a villain. Our story begins as the Office of the Public Advocate is undergoing financialdifficulty. David Howard is about to describe the financial woes to Marshall Brown andJohn Fanning, and put his foot into his mouth in the process. The sentence he used, according to all three of the participants, was I ll have to be niggardly with this fundbecause it s not going to be a lot of money. The result of this statement was a look ofmixed confusion and horror from Howard s two co-workers and the departure of Brownfrom the office while Howard was trying to offer both definition and apology at the sametime. Niggardly is the adjective form of the noun niggard , which means stingy andmiserly, and the root of the word is from nig in the Middle English of the 1300s, whichmeans miser. The other n-word, which has been at the center of many a discussion onrace relations, comes from the French word n gre , which means black. The entirefiasco led to the resignation of Howard, after some urging from Williams, and theeventual rehiring of Howard in a different job in an entirely different office. David Howard has worked in politics for many years and was part of the reasonhis director, Mayor Williams was so successful for his bid for mayor. Howard was oneof the few openly gay members of the campaign and help garner support from the gaycommunity when voting time arrived. One of the first pieces of support for the idea thatHoward is not a biased, bigoted, hate-monger is the fact that he is gay. As a member of aparticularly vilified minority, living in the racially charged atmosphere of Washington, itseems improbable that the man could possibly have been capable of using a derogatorystatement directly to the face of an African American, unless perhaps Alzheimer s hadbegun to set in and he forgot both who and where he was. The center of indignation in this piece is Marshall Brown. He called Howard afew days after the incident and demanded an apology. Howard was unwilling to give onebut was not allowed to clarify what he had said, as Brown would not listen to anythingexcept an apology. Brown has refused to comment in any way except to verify Howard sassertion that the sentence used was the one quoted above. It is more than coincidencethat Brown has remained silent on the issue, perhaps waiting for the dust to settle. Brown considered himself to be next in line for the job that Howard held, and when thejob was not only filled by another man, but a white man, it might have seemed like a slapin the face to a man who had worked for another black, Washington mayor, MarionBarry, and perhaps thought himself ready for a promotion. So where does this leave the participants? Members of the press, a group oftenthought to have a more than passing acquaintance with the English language, wrote manyeditorials and more than one decided that his or her viewpoint might be a little morebelievable if he or she revealed his or her race. White journalists generally favored theview that the entire incident was ridiculous; the mayor of Washington was showing offhis lack of backbone and niggardly was a word that should be shouted from the rooftops. The backbone problem is one that Williams has been weathering poorly in a city wherehe has been accused of not being black enough by some of the major players in theAfrican American community. One writer, a one-time professor of language, took therare view that human civilization has lost entire languages, so nothing would be wrongwith losing a few words that evoke negative emotions, regardless of their meaning. Black journalists seemed to be split on the issue of questionable words. Somethought that white men and women often used a word like niggard because it was away of taking a cheap shot at an African American within the boundaries of acceptablelanguage. The argument for this viewpoint is that white people get a kick out of saying aword like niggard because they know it is just like using the n-word so reviled byAfrican Americans and politically correct whites. Another stand on this issue wasrepeated more than once, often by student journalists. These young African Americansare from a generation which is used to hearing the n-word in rap music, movies andeveryday life in the black community. They argue that it is wrong to let yourself bedefined by a word that somebody else uses. If a woman calls a man stupid, he may well
be, but he is only stupid if he really believes that to be the case. Some of these youngpeople said it was hypocritical for blacks to use the n-word constantly and then actoffended and horrified when the word was spoken by a white person; however, they werequick to point out that in the reality of everyday living, there are insensitive and bigotedwhites who use the term with the intent to cause emotional harm. All of the previously mentioned views have their merits. Some uneducated whitepeople do use racial slurs at the drop of a hat, while others wouldn t think of usingoffensive language no matter what the situation. Some blacks are hyper-sensitive to raceissues, to the point where offense is often taken where none was ever meant, and manytimes offense is taken in situations where only ignorance is the cause of insult. Thisignorance is seen on both sides of the niggardly issue, where David Howard was ignorantof the effect niggardly could have on a black person, and Marshall Brown was ignorantthat such a word could exist and not be connected directly to the n-word that so oftencauses race troubles. Underlying this entire issue is, of course, race relations. White people are used tothe mainstream culture reflecting the way they act and think, and black people are usedto being at a disadvantage whether it be because of education or socioeconomic status. Any black leader will be happy to lecture on the disparity found between blacks andwhites and how such incongruities have their roots as far back as the Civil War. Thesedissimilarities are slowly but surely disappearing, but they still exist. Blacks are facedwith a sea of stereotypes, an ocean of cultural differences and a wasteland strewn withendless stories of oppression, inequities and mistrust. Black speakers on television often tell of how they were followed around in astore by a security guard or treated like a sales clerk while shopping in a store in theirstreet clothes. These stories are so pervasive that they are becoming clich s that can bewatched on the evening news in the form of snippets of video surveillance footage fromalmost any mall in America. Hearing that this sort of thing happens causes concern anddisbelief among educated, pc-following whites, but seeing a black man dressed in anexpensive suit and tie, followed around by a security guard who is practically drippingcontempt, one has to wonder where the basis for such prejudice gains its initial foothold. Our social cues tell us that someone who is large and muscular, unkempt, dirtyand glaring at you while yelling What the hell are you looking at? is someone to beafraid of. By the same token, a man in an expensive suit, clean and smartly groomed,should never set off any warning bells in our minds. Of course, some people learn to beafraid of lawyers, who are also well-known for their sharp wardrobes, but they tend toremove possessions in a courtroom, not at Filene s. No excuse can exist for thisbehavior, except for racism and the gut reactions people have based on stereotypes. In this situation, the gut reaction happened in a manner that can be viewed asracism and reverse racism at the same time. Brown was sure that Howard was using aracial slur of the worst kind, and at the same time, Howard was using a term that wasclearly questionable in nature. The meaning of the word holds no racist intent, but theinsensitivity with which it was used does. The fact that the use of the word niggardlycaused the kind of trouble that it did shows that a wiser man than Mr. Howard mighthave chosen to say miserly instead. Is David Howard a racist? Probably not. Is hesmart enough to do the job he hired without offending anyone? Probably. The problemhe had was not caused by stupidity, but by ignorance. He may be the most politicallycorrect person on Earth, but it didn t occur to him to strike the word niggardly (orniggling, Nigeria and Niger for that matter) out of his active vocabulary because they arenot racial slurs, but words used, at least occasionally, in the English language. The time has come for people to develop slightly thicker skin when issues of raceare on the agenda. The very act of discussing race issues often offends people in thediscussion. People may say the n-word or spell it, or say it right out, but the act ofmentioning that it exists causes people of almost all races some discomfort. Perhaps thefirst rule that should be spelled out for all races is: have patience. These issues will notdisappear and will not be made simpler by pointing fingers, waving arms and shouting You re a racist! every time someone says There s a nip in the air. or My goodness,your whole house is spic and span. These phrases were included in some of the recentarticles as a way of pointing out the ridiculousness of the niggardly incident, butmentioning them in that context draws attention to the words nip and spic in a waythat can set the teeth of the politically correct among us on edge. Is this usage racist? Ifthe intent was to indicate that these are words that are considered unwise to use in theworkplace or anyplace else, then it is not. If they are used to be funny to illustrate howabsurd people are for making non-offensive things offensive, then imagine who is beingoffended and who said the words.