Is This Offensive?


Does it even matter what I think?

It seems more than a little bit odd to me to hear people out there arguing about what is offensive and what isn’t.

It’s especially strange to hear white people, who make up pretty much my entire social circle, arguing about what makes something offensive to black Americans.

Is Aunt Jemima’s image on the syrup bottle “offensive” or is it just a meaningless picture? How about Uncle Ben? Is a statue of General Lee offensive? Or is it a monument to a cultural history?

As is so often true, when I think about the big questions that trouble adults, I turn to my experience as a classroom teacher to guide me.

I’m remember one particular year of teaching fifth grade. My students were a sweet combination of innocent and sassy. As ten year olds, they were still gentle and tender. They liked me, I liked all of them, and we had a good rapport. But as almost-adolescents, they’d begun to test some of my limits. A few kids had tried out “bad words” in the classroom, and we were discussing why some words were offensive.

One of the best parts about teaching kids this age is watching when one or two of them get that glint of mischief in their eyes and try to push the envelope a bit. In this case, a few of the kids wanted to experience the thrill of saying the forbidden words, so they started to ask me, in whispers, which words to avoid.

“Is ‘shit’ a swear?” (Giggle). “Can I say ‘dammit’?” (Giggle)

I realized pretty quickly that it was time for us to regroup and talk. I gathered the kids on the rug in our “meeting area”.

“OK,” I began. “I am not going to give you a list of acceptable and unacceptable words. There are millions of words in the English language and we aren’t going to check each one.”

I looked around the circle at all the eager faces and bright eyes.

NOTE: If you ever want to capture the attention of 25 ten year olds, tell them you’re going to talk about swears.

“A swear is a word that hurts someone. It’s a word that makes someone feel bad, or makes them uncomfortable. Even if it’s a word or a phrase that you don’t mind at all, if it hurst someone else, you don’t say it.”

They were thoughtful for a minute. A hand was raised.

“So is ‘stupid’ a swear?”

I let the kids talk about it. They realized that they knew the answer. If I say, “This stupid shoe won’t stay tied,” then it isn’t offensive. If I call my classmate “stupid”, then it is.”

I’m sure they were a little disappointed that we weren’t going to try out various spellings of the f- word, but my point had been made.

Next I asked the kids to do me a favor. I told them that sometimes we say or do things that offend others and we don’t know it. I told them that I would appreciate it if they’d tell me any time I said or did something that hurt them or offended them.

One sweet, kind little girl raised her hand. I was surprised, because I couldn’t imagine what I might have done to offend her. I asked her to tell me what was wrong.

“Could you please not say “God”? My family goes to church, and my mom says it’s wrong to say “Oh, my God”, but sometimes you say it.”

She was right. I said that phrase a LOT.

But I looked into the deep brown eyes of my trusting student, and I promised her that I would do my absolute best never to say it in front of her again.

“God” was an offensive word to this religious little girl, when I said it in that phrase.

The kids understood the lesson and we never had to revisit the question of what words were offensive.

If your action, your logo, your statue, your language, your clothing hurts someone else, you can’t keep using it.

Thanks, children. As usual, you show us the way.

4 thoughts on “Is This Offensive?

  1. I absolutely love how you break things down so simply! Your teaching skills are truly apparent. I’m reminded of the words of the Apostle Paul found at 1 Corinthians 10:23,24 which says, “All things are lawful, but not all things are advantageous. All things are lawful, but not all things build up. Let each one keep seeking, not his own advantage, but that of the other person.” In other words, we may have the right to do whatever we want, but we should always want to do things in a way that help others. We should never hurt others just because we want to exercise our right to do whatever it is we want to. The fact is the image of Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben and Mrs. Butterworth are images of slavery. They remind us of forced servitude to our Caucasian counterparts. Whenever the issue of slavery is brought up I’ve heard many people callously say, “get over it it was a long time ago. 1) It really wasn’t that long ago (my grandmother’s grandmother was a slave. Also, depending on where you were raised, I know some people alive today that have picked cotton at some point. 2) We can’t “get over it” because so many vestiges of that painful history are still around to mock and remind us. We’ve been trying to get these companies to change these images for many years. I’m glad that people are finally starting to listen. Thank you so much for this beautiful post. We may have a right to do what we want but we gain blessings when we choose to make changes for the advantages of others.

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    • Thank you so very much for this thoughtful and kind response! As a white woman living in a white environment in rural Massachusetts, one of my great frustrations is my inability to help or to be an ally. I will never understand how so many people fail to understand that the very definition of community means that until we are all secure, none are secure. Until we all succeed, none have succeeded. I wish you and yours the very best in the world!

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