There are two types of people: those who blurt out whatever comes to mind, and those who think out their words before speaking. I’m of the second persuasion. In fact, I told a co-worker once that I always think about what I’m going to say before I say it, and her eyes popped: she could not even imagine going through life that way! Her main regret was “putting her foot in her mouth” by saying things impulsively and wishing she hadn’t. My main regret is not saying enough and wishing I had. As an adult who believes in acceptance, equality, multiculturalism and similar values, being quiet did not work in my favour. I would often find myself seething about a group email joke that I found in poor taste, derogatory comments made by builders on site at my library, or an off-hand comment by a relative about a group of people. Some examples:
- My older uncles like complaining about politics. At a family reunion, they will discuss news stories and agree with each other about things like, “Indians have it easy; they live off government hand-outs.” When it’s pointed out that one of their daughters-in-law is First Nations, they’re quick to say, “Oh, we don’t mean you, Cathy, you’re not like the rest of them.”
- Having dinner one evening with a friend who is African Canadian, he said to the server, “I bet this dessert was home made.” She joked, “Yes, I slaved over it for hours.” He suggested that joking about slavery to a Black person was not appropriate. She got very flustered and said she didn’t mean it that way.
- My sister sent me an email that was making the rounds, intended to cause outrage against government policies. It stated that refugees to Canada receive $1700/month in benefits while “our own” seniors get only $600/month in Old Age Pension.
I never knew what to say in those situations, especially if no one else showed any concern. I found myself trying to teach respect to my child, working in a community with many disadvantages and trying to advocate for others, yet in my personal life, I was silent more often than not. I decided to get help by doing some research and getting tips on what to say and do in those awkward situations. By far the best tool I found was the Southern Poverty Law Center’s guide called Speak Up: Responding to Everyday Bigotry, which is now enlarged into a (free online) publication called Speak Up!
As a result, I resolved:
- I will speak up
- I will try to model another approach
- I will stand on the side of victims
- I won’t speak from another’s voice
- Let’s say my grandmother refers to her next-door neighbours as “that Oriental family.” I would not think twice about saying, “Now Grandma, we don’t say Oriental any more. Aren’t the Nguyens from Vietnam?” And she might say, “I don’t know, one of those countries.” I might then go on to talk about the family and encourage good will: “Their kids look like they’re about 6 and 8?” “No, I think the little one is only 4; she’s still in preschool” and we could continue the conversation about them as neighbours.
- A relative knows I hate it when he refers to a bad policy or decision as “retarded.” I tell him, “We don’t use the R word in our house.” He’ll say, “But I’m not talking about a person. Am I supposed to say it’s an intellectually challenged policy?” I will retort, “Why can’t you just say it’s a bad decision?” And he will keep saying it just to irritate me. But he knows from my speaking up every time that I am standing my ground.
- I recently worked in a neighbourhood where the residents were predominantly Black. As the manager of the local library, sometimes I would be called upon to speak up on behalf of the community. I was careful about drawing conclusions. For example, if an African drum ensemble drew a large audience, I wouldn’t say in my monthly report, “Cultural programs are popular in the Black community.” Maybe an author reading or an iPad 101 class would have been equally popular.
I realize I would have to show restraint if my personal safety was at stake. For instance, I would not necessarily intervene in a racially-motivated fight at a bus stop. But I could at least call the police if necessary and act as a reliable witness. The two challenges to my views that I hear most often are:
- Can’t I mention (race or sexual orientation or religion) at all?
- Everyone is too politically correct nowadays.
At a workshop I attended on Cultural Competence, the instructor was asked, “Let’s say I went to my doctor’s office to get a referral. The person at the counter said they’d arrange it and call me. A week later I haven’t heard back. I return to the office and the staff person at the desk says, “Who did you speak with?” Is it OK to say, “She was Hispanic” or ‘He was wearing a turban”?
Her answer: Yes! A person’s ethnicity, country of origin or religious articles are some of many descriptors that would help you identify who you spoke with.
As for political correctness: I don’t like that term. It seems to be used only by those who don’t want their language censored for sensitivity to others. It might take some effort on our part to learn the words that various communities use to describe themselves: one example is that historic Black communities in Nova Scotia refer to themselves as Indigenous Blacks, to differentiate from recent African immigrants. But what is wrong with taking the time to learn a bit about the people you live near and work with? Or to show respect by using words the communities prefer? The alternative, of course, is simply to be very gracious when you make a mistake, to adopt the new terms as soon as you know them, and to adapt again if they change. It’s embarrassing not to: do you want to be the only person in your workplace who talks about “the homosexuals” or “the gays”? Yeesh!
Do you speak up? Or do you usually put your foot in it?
PS: I asked at the local new immigrants’ centre about the monthly payments to refugees. They were aware of the story making the rounds and were frustrated by it. They explained that a legal refugee receives a one-time payment of $1700 to set up a household. Thereafter, they receive income assistance at the usual adult rate (currently $555/month in Nova Scotia) until they find employment.