And Another Thing…

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Stepping in it – Updated

Have you ever made a seemingly innocuous comment that still managed to offend people? I may have done that Thursday night in class. This summer I am taking Group Therapy. As part of the course, we have groups during class time and then journal about the experience afterward.  This was our 4th meeting and the group seems to be gelling. Its a diverse crew, as most of my classes have been.

The discussion tonight turned to life in and around Washington D.C. with most of the participants saying that they would rather live somewhere else. One member said that she and her husband chose to move here from rural New England where they grew up in order to experience some diversity (apparently, rural New England is pretty white). Someone mentioned something about the Pacific Northwest, and having lived there I pointed out that the Northwest is pretty white in its own right. I told them how when I moved out there I realized after about a week that I had not seen any ethnicity other than whites and a few Asians, so I asked a long-time resident, “Are there any black people in the Northwest?”

This was not a value judgment or criticism, just an observation as to how different the environment of the Northwest was for me. However, some of the group members appeared uncomfortable after I made my remark. Shortly after, we ran out of time so there was no real follow-up to my comment. This leaves me wondering: Did I step in it? Was I out of line somehow? Was I wrong to use the expression “black people” instead of African-American? Afterwards I asked my classmate and friend Sean (who as it happens, is black) if anything I said was offensive, and he said no.

Update:

It all turned out to be nothing in the end. The next time we had class nobody said anything about or treated me any differently. I was worried over nothing (which, as Christine will attest, is a bad habit of mine). Regardless, thanks for your feedback.

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19 Responses

  1. Kelly says:

    You might have set off a “racist buzzer” for some folks, but the more they get to know you and what you are about, the quicker they will get over it. Everybody steps in it from time to time by accident, but it doesn’t sound like your pile was particularly huge!

  2. odgie says:

    Kelly,

    You are probably right, but I don’t know how I did it exactly. I didn’t say that I liked that the NW had a lower population of black people than I was used to, just that it was a different environment for me, especially after growing up near D.C. and living in Memphis for three years.

  3. rollerpimp says:

    I think it would have been offensive if you had said are there any n-bombs in the Northwest and asking it in a way like you would be scared to move there if there were is racist. Asking if there are any black people in an effort to prove that they don’t have any is not racist.

    Going into a group of black men in an inner city putting on a crash helmet and then screaming the n-bomb and running would still be a great game show. Thank you Kentucky Fried Movie.

  4. odgie says:

    Pimp,

    Yeah, the scenario you decribe would definately be offensive, but obviously that wasn’t the case.

    And as to Kentucky Fried Movie, well, i’m no Danger Seeker.

  5. andy says:

    It may be just general discomfort with talking about race. I think anyone who’s talked to you very much would be able to see that you obviously don’t hold any hostility towards any particular race or ethnicity. Maybe they thought you were bashing the Northwest?

  6. odgie says:

    Andy,

    You are right, the “r” word does tend to automatically punch buttons for people. And I hope that you are right that my attitudes about race are evident.

  7. David B says:

    To me it sounds like nothing at all…but to a member of another race who has been offended by dumber things others have said, maybe it was. I’ve learned that we all say some things that are offensive at times, but sometimes we don’t know what may set others off. I think of things all the time I say (in person and from the pulpit) and wonder later who might have been offended by what I said.

    The fact that your radar is up for something seemingly inoffensive like that tells me that even if not perfect, you are doing your best, and as these people get to know you they will see that as well and give you the benefit of the doubt. At least I hope so.

    Dave,

    Alot of my classmates are people who I have had classes with for the last 3 years; I am hoping that our shared history will count for something.

    I expect that you hear often about things you have said in the pulpit that someone filtered into something totally different and potentially offensive. What do you do when that happens?

  8. Jerri Harrington says:

    I don’t think you said anything offensive, but of course, I wouldn’t know how another person might take the “black people” comment. Personally, I think it’s confusing how to properly address everyone. I wrote an email to a Christian publisher who happened to be female. I addressed her as Ms., not knowing whether or not she was married. Her reply addressed me by my first name and herself by both names. So, then when I sent her another email, I addressed her by her first name, no Ms. I didn’t receive a reply, but none was expected. Today I sent an article that I wrote in for her to consider, so I again addressed her by Ms. and her last name, still not knowing if she was married. My thoughts were: if she isn’t married, maybe she would prefer Ms. Maybe I should have researched her marital status. As a Christian woman, she might not mind, and may prefer being addressed as Mrs.
    Either way, I probably committed a publishing faux pas by ever addressing a publisher by her first name, unless asked to do so. We’ll see. Don and some of my friends liked my article. So, I guess my point is, sometimes we just can’t know what is or is not offensive. You aren’t an offensive person, so I agree with the comments above….they’ll figure that out.

    Jeri –

    I certainly hope that I am not offensive; I try at least. I can relate to your story; it seems that there is no accepted protocol for how to address people properly anymore.

  9. Trey says:

    Sadly, there are many that wear rasism on their sleeve.

    Trey,

    Spoken like a man who has run into this from time to time. Care to elaborate?

  10. smilingkj says:

    I’ve gotten wound around the axle on things like this before and I tend to agree with those above (who, let’s face it, know you better than I do, probably) that you are not, by nature, an offensive person.

    Rather, I see you as being a genuine person, and I think that genuine people can often spend lots of time wondering if their genuine-ness is offensive to others. In my mind, there is a huge difference between being an offensive person and being a genuine person who occasionally offends others.

    To answer your question more directly…I grew up with all kinds of races/ethnicities/cultures and also find it shocking to go to areas where there are whites everywhere. I don’t think your question was an inherently offensive one. I see it as an expression of honest curiosity.

  11. odgie says:

    Thank you Kathi.

  12. Matthew says:

    Typically, I remove one foot to insert another. I struggle with this too, trying to communicate but not offend anyone.

    http://www.matthewsblog.waynesborochurchofchrist.org

  13. Adam G. says:

    I’m white, so I have very little authority to say what should be considered offensive, but I REALLY think some people are too touchy. Then again, that’s probably just the caucasian talking….

  14. Micah says:

    I worry over nothing on a daily basis. Strike that. Hourly

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  16. Jerri Harrington says:

    I do that, too, Mike, even with my own kids. I’m learning that people usually give us the benefit of the doubt once they know us. I’m sure you give others the benefit of the doubt, too, don’t you? I wish I could have all of the hours back that I wasted worrying over something I said–especially the times I didn’t actually offend anyone. 🙂 (But then, there’s always the other extreme….)

  17. odgie says:

    Jerri,

    Yours is a good point: as a rule, I don’t expect others to give me the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps a left-over habit from my days in the ministry.

    Re: the other extreme…a.k.a the blogosphere 🙂

  18. Erin L. says:

    Mike- This comment doesn’t seem offensive to me at all! I am probably one of those who is a little overly-sensitive about such matters and I’m not sure how anyone- even if they didn’t know you- could take offense. -Erin

  19. odgie says:

    Erin,

    I really don’t know either; but in this day and age everyone seems to feel entitled to be offended. Such is life.

    Thanks for commenting.

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