As a kid growing up in the 1970's in Philadelphia, I had heard the word used often. I also heard lots of other words used - the F-word for a homosexual male, the C-word for a person from Asian descent, the S-word for a person of Hispanic descent, and more. And if you don't know what words I am referring to, good for you! The culture of the city at that time was very segregated with Italians living in one area of the city, the Irish in another, the Germans in another, etc. While it was great for heritage-related pride, it was devastating for human respect and appreciation.
So, am I scarred from it? I don't think so (I'll check with my counselor). But, the memories of it came back while listening to the countless "experts" banter on about Paula Deen. Now while I don't know all of the details of the deposition, I am to understand that she was questioned regarding if she had ever used a derogatory term to refer to someone of color. She answered honestly and said yes.
My first thoughts were, "Man, I would be guilty, too." Not about using the epithet that she used, but of using other derogatory and hurtful language towards someone that looked different than me or acted differently than I did. You see, I was immature. I thought that my words could fight for me and win. Being a teenager is not an excuse. I did know better.
The second thoughts I had were surrounding us in HR. What if someone who struggled with race or ethnic relations observed how the masses reacted to Paula Deen. Would it be likely for that person to now walk into work and seek forgiveness and help? Not likely. The honest dialogue that we so desperately try to nurture is in danger of being cut off at the knees. Here is a woman of notoriety who answered honestly in regards to a race-related question. She has apologized for her wrong from years back and has sought forgiveness. She has lost her show, sponsorships and endorsements, and the respect of many people. Not exactly the way to get honest dialogue and healing to happen.
Please understand that this is not about defending Paula Deen. I don't know her; I've never met her. I don't own any cookware or even a cookbook from her. This is about what kind of dialogue we get to influence at work. Do we honestly think that our workplace doesn't contain people who still use derogatory language? Do we truly believe that our teams are full of people who think well of each other and are not influenced by someone's color, sex or sexual preference? We know better.
We cannot believe that we'll get lucky like this current situation presents again. We have to use this to open up about stereotypes and bigotry. I have worked for companies where both subtle innuendos and glaring language concerning who is and who is not "like us" was used. We cannot allow it. We get to set the stage and encourage the dialogue of the performance to be real so that healing and growth can occur.
Here's a few scabs to pick at: Are managers passing over resumes with names that are too hard to pronounce (code for "they probably don't speak English")? Are there executive teams that operate as a boys-only club with women holding superficial executive titles but no real power? Are there manufacturing lines that "happen" to allow people of a similar ethnicity to work side by side while keeping them from different pockets of heritage? Too close to home for you? I could go on.
I worked for a national retailer once where a manager told me that on the distribution floor it was important to keep the "Koreans from the Chinese. They don't like each other much." After I picked my jaw up off the floor, I asked if he also did that with the Blacks and Whites. He looked at me in shock and said, "John, that's racist." Really? Are you kidding me?
The dialogue that we must encourage is far-reaching and cannot be allowed to be shut off. The response to Ms. Deen might scare people from opening up and addressing those issues that it must address. Our companies need to be invested in regarding true human relational understanding. We have made strides over the years (no doubt), but this recent incident shows that it is still tender.
As someone who has experienced first hand the damage that racial stereotyping can do, it is crucial that the dialogue not be stifled by a fear of losing sponsors, or more frightening, a career. We wind up encouraging people to stay silent and not move towards healing and restoration. In HR, we can be advocates for open dialogue and engagement towards healing. Let's talk to people about how things really are. We ought not to hope to just get lucky with our people; we've got to lead our people.