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.

My Personal Journey of Evolving


The events that are unfolding across this country, and across the world, have me humbled and sad.

As I have cheered on the activists and protestors who march for Black Lives Matter, I have started to question my own history. I’ve been trying to think about all of the ways that I have failed to be anti-racist. I have spent my life in a white bubble, with virtually no black friends or colleagues, I am struggling to find my way, even as I commit myself to making a difference.

I don’t know what to say, or what to do. But I do have an analogy that is helpful to me, and that might clarify things for my white friends.

This story goes back to my very first days as a public school student. I was a nice girl. I was kind, and friendly and a good student. I followed the teacher’s directions.

When I was in first grade, I was friendly with a boy in my class. He was a boy who went to my church, and who was one of the members of my “advanced reading” group. I don’t remember really thinking much about him. We were smart. We liked to read. He had a constant grin on his face, and I thought that he was “nice.”

We were in the same class again in second grade. We were both good at math, although even at that tender age, I understood that he had a sense for the problems that I didn’t possess. We once again spent time together in the “advanced reading group.” We got to read the really good books.

By the time third grade came around, and I found myself once again in class with this boy, I had begun to notice that he was a little bit “different” from the rest of us. He still came to school every day with that wide grin, but I started to notice that his clothes were slightly out of style. I knew that his parents were a little bit different from the rest of the middle class suburban families who attended our church. His Mom wore clothes and make up that looked to have come from the 1940s. Unlike my own beautiful and stylish Mother, she always seemed, even to me, just a little bit desperate for friends in town.

I remember this boy for his continuing academic excellence, but my mind is even clearer when I remember his enduring cheerfulness and his pleasure at being in school.

He was tall. Taller than the rest of the third graders. He was heavy. He was physically ungainly and awkward.

This made him a target, as did his constant success and his never ending grin.

One of my clearest memories from my elementary school years is the time when our third grade class was asked to complete a “forward roll” in gym class. I remember the echoing sounds of the gym, and the benches that lined the room. I remember the smell of the gym mats and the recessed lights set into the ceiling.

Mostly I remember us taking our turns and doing our “forward rolls.” One after another, our nine year old bodies morphed into pillbugs and we rolled ourselves over.

All of us except one.

The awkward, roundly formed smart boy in my class. My one time friend. He was unable to complete the move. He tried. He tried again. He was alone on the mat in the center of the gym, the increasingly frustrated teacher at his side.

His classmates, including me, sat on the bench along the wall. I remember the snickers. I remember the giggles. I remember the boy on the mat, his cheeks growing ever more flushed, his grin becoming a grimace of desperation.

He never did complete that move.

We went back to our classroom.

And the snickers and giggles and jokes continued.

I remember that day, although it was well over a half century ago. I remember it because I didn’t do one single thing to make the situation better for this boy that had been my friend.

Nobody had ever told me, back in 1964, that bystanders are a part of the problem of bullying. Nobody had ever looked me in the eye and said, “When you see someone being mistreated, you need to stand up and call it out. You need to protect and defend the person being victimized.”

But you know what?

I knew it anyway.

I knew that what I was seeing was wrong. I knew that it was cruel. I watched the open hearted smile on the face of my friend turn into a desperate attempt to find himself a place in our small group.

I knew it, but I never said a single thing to make it any better.

So. I could plausibly tell myself that what happened in my third grade classroom was not my fault. I could tell myself that I was not a bully. I never said a single mean thing. I don’t remember joining in the laughter.

Who, me?

No, I am not a bully. I’m nice.

And for me that is the metaphor that I find relevant today, as I watch the Black Lives Matter protests that are unfolding everywhere.

The easy thing would be to reassure myself that I am most definitely not racist. I have never used that ugly N- word. I have never said anything cruel to a black person, or kept that person out of a job.

But if I’m honest, I’d have to admit that I have been a passive, complacent bystander for all of the six decades of my life.

I haven’t stood up for my non-white neighbors and fellow citizens.

I have believed that it was enough not to be mean.

I think back on my first grade pal, the boy who should have grown up to discover some advanced scientific ideas I couldn’t even pronounce. I think about my failure to pull him aside and tell him that a stupid forward roll was pointless and that he was worth a lot more than an “A” in gym.

I took no action. I was a passive observer.

This time around, as my fellow citizens are crying out in desperation, I need to find a way to take some real action. I need to do better. I need to be a better person.

I’ll do it. I’ll do it in the memory of my friend, the boy who was failed by this friend.