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Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Open Mouth, Insert Foot

Posted Monday, April 20, 2009, at 9:37 AM

I'm early to a meeting where a friend is presenting after the meal. He is Rajai Bimbo, an African American who is also president of the local NAACP chapter. Since we're there early we are the first to go through the food line. We choose our table and for the next half hour we watch as others arrive and fill the other tables. Only one person sits at ours and it just looks very strange that the other tables are filled to the max while ours is mostly empty. I turn to Rajai and ask, "what are we, the black plague?" Immediately I knew I had voiced a very uncool, un-politically correct phrase. I wanted to slide to the floor and crawl out in embarrassment. And I spoke within seconds of my slip of words and said, "I didn't mean that in a racist way. I should have said bubonic plague!" He just looked at me with eyes of comical unbelief and smiled.

There are these phrases in our language that now have unpleasant meanings to them. Life has changed, culture has changed, and you don't think about what the implications of certain "innocent" phrases you've heard throughout your childhood until it's too late. You've spoken the un-defendable, made a fool of yourself, and try to undo the damage. And, depending upon the response of the persons who could have been offended by your words, you move through it. I was lucky. Rajai was very gracious. It could have ended otherwise.

Some would say that I'm being too paranoid about it. Surely all of us have been in those situations where we spoke before we thought and didn't realize what we said had other meanings and implications. It provides comic relief when we see it on a scripted television comedy. It can mortify you when you are the guilty person.

It's wonderful that we are attempting to be sensitive to the changing words and phrases in our American dialogues. I would much rather be sensitive and seek to end my using of those terms and phrases than to hurt others and make them think I was doing so intentionally. But it is a painful process.

Five days later I'm speaking with a father of two after an Easter egg hunt. He knows I'm teaching a class on Native American issues and that I self identify as Native American. One of his children has brought a plastic egg to give to me as a gift. A gang of us adults are talking about life and the weather when that same child comes back and takes the chocolates that had been in that Easter egg. As his child runs back to play with the other kids the father turns to me and says, "I guess my child is an Indian giver." Within seconds his eyes turn huge, his face red, and he turns to me and says, "guess I shouldn't have said that in front of you!" I was already laughing at this innocently comical scene. And, I was marveling at how the universe had allowed me to experience the situation from "the other side."

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Sunshine for the Soul
Rev. P.T. Wilson
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P.T. Wilson is the senior pastor at Gobin Memorial United Methodist Church, Greencastle, and is also the University Chaplain at DePauw University.
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