Words are All That Matter

Yesterday, President Barack Obama’s introduction to 2012 Medal of Freedom winner Jan Karski a leader in the World War II resistance to the Nazi occupation of Poland included a reference to “Polish death camps”.   Most of us understood that Mr. Obama was referring to the horrendous extermination sites established by Nazi Germany.   However, some Poles are, understandably, troubled when these facilities are characterized as Polish camps.    The Polish Foreign Minister has asked for an apology from the Obama Administration for the poorly-worded introduction used in the White House ceremony.

Five days ago, former Washington, DC Mayor (currently a city council member), Marion Barry attended a meeting of Asian American business, civic and community leaders to apologize for his recent public comments which were offensive to that community.  As the meeting ended and attendees were being conciliatory and discussing the undercurrents of racism that continue to plague our country, Mr. Barry’s words turned on him again.  As he listed groups that have been historical victims of discrimination in this country, he included Irish and Jewish emigrants and then, unfortunately, referred to Polish Americans with a term considered derogatory by most.  Barry was chagrined by his error.  He had meant no harm and was, again, apologetic.   His remark prompted a demand for an apology by the Executive Director of the Chicago-based Polish American Association

These two incidents, albeit dissimilar, provide a teaching moment for public officials, and others, to be conscientious about their words that may offend, even when unintentional.   Some might say the calls for apologies come from those who are overly sensitive or that this attention to “political correctness” is getting way out of hand.  I don’t see it that way.

The diversity field is not a static landscape.   Being aware of language as it intersects with values and norms is critical for navigating diversity in our work and our lives.    That’s why it’s good to have staff, speech writers, etc. who have diverse backgrounds and an editor’s eye/ear when it comes to our public messages.