I recently participated in a discussion at an on-line forum about race in America and one of the things that came up was intention. One of the posters brought up an incident where some American Indian women were talking about a play they wanted to see. They were worried they might not get tickets and joked they would have to roll someone for them. The poster joked they could go to a ticket scalper. Well, the Indians got completely offended at the use of the word "scalping." That's bad enough-it's in the dictionary as a verb to resell at a price higher than the established value, and it's a common word used wherever tickets are sold. It's perhaps not surprising the women took offense, because that's what people do nowadays. They take offense. And if there's no legitimate reason to be offended, they will make up a reason to be offended.
What bothered me was the poster feeling that she had done something wrong. Now, it's an old saying, going back to Cervantes' novel Don Quixote, that you don't talk about rope in the house of a man who has been hanged. It's not like being sensitive to the feelings of others was invented by the politically correct of the twentieth century. And I could understand, if the women had been convicted and served time at some point in their lives of scalping someone. Then, certainly, it would be more polite and thoughtful and kind not to bring up that word, even in casual conversation about tickets to a play. This was not the case, however. It was just a matter of "We're Indians and how dare you bring up the word scalping!" I found myself wondering how far these ladies take their prejudice. If they go to the doctor for a scalp problem, does he have to refrain from using the word "scalp?" I study herbs, and people have asked me for recommendations for, among other things, head lice. I've asked them about the condition of their scalp before telling them about herbs they could try. Should I now ask, "Are you an Indian, or whatever politically correct term you prefer for that particular heritage?" And if they say yes, should I find another word for scalp? Thesaurus.com doesn't seem to have any words to substitute for the skin on top of the head where the hair grows. I suppose I could say all that, or maybe just point. It makes my head swim.
Anyway, the point was made that, if one is white, one must be sensitive to the history of the person one is speaking to, as long as that person is a member of a minority group. One must be aware, as a white person who has a lot of privilege that was not earned, that it's important to realize that person might take something wrong, regardless of intent. And this bothered me the most of all. I'm a white person. I'm also a Cajun. My grandmother had a little farm down in Louisiana, she didn't speak English, and she was illiterate. This was back before people decided Cajuns were cool and my family were subjected to abuse on the grounds that they were "yellow-bellied Frenchmen," among other things. My grandmother lost her husband in World War II, and as an illiterate non-English speaking member of a despised minority group, she was unable to get any of the benefits she was entitled to from the government for her husband's death while serving overseas. She just couldn't navigate the system, there was no one to help her, and so she had to do without and raise her children alone as best she could. They did live on a farm, so they could grow a lot of their own food, and my grandmother was a good shot and went out hunting to put meat on the table. But my mother quit school in the eighth grade to go to work and help my grandmother make ends meet. And my mother and father had a pretty tough time financially because one of my sisters had a severe medical problem that ate up the money as fast as they could make it. So I may be white, but I come from a disadvantaged background. I didn't have "privileges" or a lot of extras. My parents could barely manage the basics. And I had to work for everything I have. Do I have the right to be offended that I am lumped in with the privileged upper crust, just on the basis of my race, which has never done a thing for me?
Sure, I have a right to be offended by the standards of today, where intention doesn't matter, and offense is not in the words of the speaker but the ears of the listener. I refuse to be offended, however. I simply refuse to take the attitude that somebody has done something wrong by saying something that upset me. If I get upset about something, that's on me, not on them, unless they deliberately say something to try to hurt my feelings. How often does that actually happen, though? I've had to deal with rude sales clerks of a different race, I've been hassled by cops of a different race. Were they trying to pick on a white person? Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe they were having a bad day and they just weren't acting the way they normally would. Or maybe they were just obnoxious people who treat everyone badly. Isn't it better to give people the benefit of the doubt when it's not clear they are doing something deliberately because of race or gender or whatever? I think so. I think Harriet Beecher Stowe was correct when she said, "There is one thing that every individual can do-they can see to it that they feel right. An atmosphere of sympathetic influence encircles every human being; and the man or woman who feels strongly, healthily and justly, on the great interests of humanity, is a constant benefactor to the human race. See, then, to your sympathies in this matter! Are they in harmony with the sympathies of Christ? or are they swayed and perverted by the sophistries of worldly policy?"
This week marked the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" speech. Like a lot of people, I wonder what the man who dreamed of a world where people are judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin, would make of a world where a rodeo clown is castigated for mocking the President. Mocking the President has been a staple of rodeo clown routines for decades and the only reason this particular clown is in trouble is because the President is black. What would Dr. King think of Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson and Jeremiah Wright? Would he remind us of Booker T. Washington's warning, "I'm afraid there is a certain class of race problem solvers who don't want the patient to get well, because as long as the disease holds out they have not only an easy means of making a living, but also an easy medium through which to make themselves prominent before the public." Whatever Dr. King would make of today's world, I don't think he would believe, or advance, the idea that a well-meaning person should have to censor every word they say lest someone somewhere be offended for some reason. We should all be kind to others, and thoughtful and sensitive. But I greatly fear that in today's climate, the only way to avoid giving offense is never to say anything to anyone. And if there's one thing I'm sure of, it's that Dr. King would not believe in silencing a portion of the population. I think he would tell us that we should all, regardless of our physical attributes, strive to be kind to each other and not look for offense where none is intended. And I think that's something we can all work on every day and if we did, we might just find the world a better place.