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.

Mending Walls and Jumping Fences

Washington,DC’s race relations can get a bad rap from those who don’t live here, and sometimes from those who do.   However, in one interracial neighborhood in a nearby DC suburb, a group of neighbors exemplify the strength of community that can blur the dividing lines of race.

79-year old James Musser, his wife Donna and their adult son cried out for help when a fire raged out of control in an upstairs bedroom where Musser, who uses a wheel chair, was trapped.   Next door, Gene Ward and his daughter heard the frantic shouts of their neighbors and rushed into action, along with a handful of other residents of this modest working-class street in Temple Hills, Maryland, to rescue the Mussers who have lived in their home fifty years.

Gene Ward is black.  James Musser is white.

The Washington,DC region is one of the most racially polarized areas in the nation.  Fear, economic disparity and tradition have erected strong geographic and social barriers between different races in the region.   But, on the block where Musser and Ward live, neighbors haven’t let their differences become obstacles to knowing each other.

In the television news reports that followed the fire and rescue, Ward called James Musser his friend and mentor.  So when fire broke out on a rainy, Sunday evening last week and Ward heard his friend’s screams he didn’t hesitate.  In fact, he leaped over a fence and kicked down the door of Musser’s house.  

Musser’s wife called 911 and his son suffered lacerations and smoke inhalation trying to save his father but Musser, unable to manage the stairs leading to the first floor of his home, couldn’t escape.   So Gene Ward climbed the stairs, groping the wall to steady himself, and then holding onto Musser’s legs slid him down the staircase step-by-step to safety.   Ward was assisted by another neighbor who also rushed into the burning house.   Outside, more neighbors covered Mrs. Musser and her son in blankets, sheltered them from the rain and administered first aid.

 Robert Frost’s poem Mending Walls notes some of us believe ‘good fences make good neighbors.’  Yet, there are many who believe that building stronger communities and positive race relations requires sometimes jumping over the fence, kicking in the door and pulling down the barriers that separate us.

 As Frost’s poem suggests: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”   


Name Calling: The Washington Redskins’ Controversy

This is not a new issue.   But, it’s appropriate to revisit the controversy over the Washington Redskins’name.

First, let me say I occasionally watch and enjoy football but I am not a rabid (fantasy football devotee, jersey-wearing, Sunday and Monday night football appointment TV viewer) fan.  Therefore, I am much less emotionally entangled in the ups and downs of the play and management of the Washington football franchise, or any other franchise for that matter.    I do, however, monitor diversity issues, am an engaged conversant in the discourse about the impact of sports on culture, and am personally offended by racially-charged language.    So, this isn’t about football. Continue reading

(Black) & Red, White and Blue

I took note again this year that the Fourth of July compels many Americans to fly the stars and stripes in front of their homes.     But as I traveled around the region (greater Washington metropolitan area; as well as a trip to Baltimore), it seemed to be white (and not Black) neighborhoods that had most of the red-white-and blue on display.


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