Thursday, March 10, 2011

Words That Can Crumble...

Today at lunch, a co-worker of mine asked, "does anyone know of a good alarm system they would recommend?"  She proceeded to tell us that she and her husband were looking into an alarm system because of recent robberies in their neighborhood situated out in the country.  This sparked stories from others about the time their houses were robbed.  These kinds of discussions always end up being kind of  fun, as inevitably one story teller tries to out tell another.  I must admit, I jumped in with the story about the time my sister was house sitting for a neighbor and we eventually found out that a man was "living" there secretly while the neighbors were away.  True story. It was a lively discussion.

Suddenly, however, in the span of one sentence, the conversation left a bitter taste in my mouth and sent my thoughts whirling.  I know the sentence was made with no malicious intent.  In fact, the speaker later tried to explain away her comment, perhaps realizing the sting it may have caused.  The woman, a very nice woman, was talking about a car suspiciously parked on the street in front of the acreage lots out in the country.  It was suspicious because of where it was parked, because of a missing license plate, and because it sat there for some time, "appearing" to be "casing out" their neighbors luxurious acreage home.  But, then came that stinging sentence. "...and there were two black guys sitting in the front seat."

 The sentence was not, "there were two unfamiliar guys in the front seat" or "there were two guys we'd never seen before" or, even, "there were two guys we didn't recognize as being from our neighborhood."  It was, "...and there were two black guys sitting in the front seat." I missed the next several seconds of what she said as that sentence echoed momentarily in my mind and I immediately thought of my son.  Oh, how I hope he is never on the end of a sentence like that, used in that way.  It was not intentionally hurtful, but the sting was still there.

Later on in the conversation, the woman did explain that there are no black families on their street, which is why it seemed out of place.  She even stated something like, "I don't mean to sound prejudice or just didn't make sense for them to be there."  It was an attempt to put context to the sentence.  But, by that point, the pain was already unintentionally inflicted.

Now, do not get me wrong.  I am not an overly politically correct person.  I don't know what the latest politically correct terms are for the variety of people groups we have in our country and around the world.  As well, I am sure that somewhere along the line I have said or done things that I would now hit myself over the head for.  As well, I am not someone who thinks we should never use someone's ethnic or racial identity to talk about a person or explain who someone is.  In fact, ethnic/racial identity is a major part of who someone is and impacts how their world view is shaped.  Ethnicity and racial identity are good things that should, to some degree, be acknowledged and celebrated in the world.  However, this kind of statement, especially if left hanging with no further clarification, holds within it history of inequality and judgment based on racial biases.

When, therefore, in my mind does it make sense to describe someone by including their racial or ethnic identity?  Okay - this is risky to put out here because I, myself, am not from a minority group.  I am merely the fierce lioness-like mama of someone who is.  Therefore, my opinion comes only from me, a very white middle aged youngish woman.  In my mind there is no reason to discuss this identity unless the identity is specific to their description for the purpose of distinguishing one person from another or for clarifying an appearance for appearance sake.  For example, if I was describing my son to someone because they were going to meet him for the first time in the library without me, I may well say, "he's 8 years old.  He will have on ripped jeans and a dinosaur t-shirt.  He has black curly hair and dark brown / black skin."  In order to help identify my son to someone unfamiliar, it makes perfect sense that I might include that "he's black" or "he's African", especially if they did not know that my son was adopted.  Similarly, I would describe distinctive features of my daughter perhaps as, "she is a bit of a princess warrior.  She will be wearing the pretty pink dress and dirty sneakers.  She has long blond hair and greenish blue eyes."  If I was describing a woman that I saw whose beauty struck me, I may say, "she was thin with dark eyes and long dark hair.  Her skin was a lovely olive tone, very Mediterranean in appearance."  I may also describe someone that I am referring to in a crowd by including their race, if it would help to identify them.  For example, if I was telling someone about my friend Marcus across the room, I may say, "He's the African American man over in the corner wearing the white t-shirt."  If the crowd had many white t-shirt wearing dark haired men in it, it could take me a long time trying to narrow down the list otherwise.  There would be no negative connotation behind that kind of statement.

However, race or ethnicity does not need to be used by itself as part of a description when those features do not set them apart from someone else, especially when there is some negative tone attached.  As my wise sister, Sue, says, "If you wouldn't normally say something like 'the blond person', there is probably no reason to say 'the black/Asian/Mexican person'."  Generally, people wouldn't use the same type of description for someone who was white.  For example, it is highly unlikely that this woman at the lunch table would ever have said, "...and there were a couple of white guys sitting in the front seat" or "....two blond haired men..."  Similarly, if I am discussing students at my school as being rowdy in the hallway, I hope I would not ever say, "there were a bunch of Hispanic kids messing around in the halls."  It should suffice it to say, "there were a bunch of kids messing around in the halls."  Now, if I was trying to identify those students to someone else for some follow up action and didn't know their names, I would likely use multiple physical descriptors to help determine who they were - just as I would if they were white students.  Get the difference?

Words - little combinations of letters on a page or formed in our mouths - are powerful.  They can be powerful in a good encouraging way or in a hurtful awful kind of way.  Words can build someone up or they can tear someone to pieces.  When spoken in love, they can crumble walls.  When spoken in ignorance or hate, they can crumble confidence, spirits, and lives.

I know the intent of this woman was not malicious.  Yet that simple sentence brought out so many protective instincts in this mama bear.  I think I need to gird myself for days to come when someone says something out of ignorance or hate to or about my child that causes me to stumble.  Sadly, it is bound to happen.  It already has happened.  And, I need to be ready to choose my battles and decide when to graciously ignore an unintentional arrow, when to humbly educate, and when to fight with love and passion for what is right.  It's something I will have to think about...and pray about.  I will also have to remember to watch my words in order to use them to crumble walls, not crumble spirits.  Ultimately, I will have to use that Jesus vision that I long for.  That's the only way I will truly see people the way they are meant to be seen.

Ben with his old best buddy and little sister out for his 8th birthday - getting their karate on!
Ben sporting his super strength with his scrawnier  best bud.


  1. Kathy, thank you for writing this. As someone who lives in a small town and works at a diverse school in Minneapolis, I often hear comments like this and don't know how to respond. I don't want to stay silent but don't know what to say so that I'm not perceived as "that" person who thinks she's better than everyone else or sticks her nose in other people's business, etc. I agree with you 100% about when a person's race/ethnic identity may need to be mentioned.

  2. Hi Becky! Thanks for your thoughts. Generally, I think most people don't think about what they are saying or that it may be hurtful. That's part of our problem, though, isn't it? I think I notice this a bit more here than I did in Canada - perhaps because of the different demographics and history. Although, there may have been more issues related to other people groups than here. Not sure.
    Anyway, I think our responses - whether to stay quiet or not - may be dependent on the context of the interactions. Tricky though...

  3. One more thought -- if you have to make the comment in a whispered voice -- it should probably be reconsidered.

  4. Thanks, Sue! That is true too...about so many things people say.

  5. Kathy it is a thought-provoking post for sure! There are so many instances where I have wanted to remove the foot inserted into my mouth. References to "feeling fat", saying "that's so retarded!" even "I just wanted to die!" etc. Has hurt close friends who resonate with them or have children who do. I definitely need to clean up my speech because those things are not lovely or beautiful. I don't want to walk on eggshells with everyone around me, and I must also give myself grace because I've been forgiven for sins past, present, and future. However, being challenged with how to live as a better Christian is always uncomfortable and convicting for me. Thank you!

  6. Hi Heather! Thanks for your honest comments. I am so thankful for grace, but glad for conviction too. It is true that living as one who follows Jesus can surely put us into uncomfortable places at times. Keep on working it out...I like what you have shown to me these last couple of years.

  7. Thank you for putting it so well. As the mother of two multi-racial children, I often find myself trying to describe the difference in what it means to use race as a part of the description as apart from defining someone by their race. I may have to share your post with my 7th grade class. I think you cleared it up beautifully!


Share your thoughts, feelings, or your own related experiences. I love that! And, as always, thanks for stopping by!