A Racist Word? A Crisis Communications Case Study
Niggardly (adverb): grudgingly mean about spending or granting. Synonyms: cheap, chintzy, close, closefisted, mean, mingy, miserly, niggard, stingy, parsimonious, penny-pinching, penurious, pinching, pinchpenny, spare, sparing, stinting, tight, tightfisted, uncharitable, ungenerous – Merriam-Webster Dictionary
I was speaking to my wife yesterday when I referenced the word “niggardly.” She immediately thought I had said something racist. (In fact, the word traces back to the 1300s, derives from the word “miser,” and has nothing to do with race.)
Our exchange reminded me of a controversy that occurred in the late 1990s when I lived in Washington, D.C.
David Howard, the head of Washington, D.C.’s Office of Public Advocate, used the word “niggardly” when speaking about his budget. At the time, Mr. Howard, who is white, was speaking with two African American employees. The employees thought he had used offensive language, and word got out that he had said something racist. Mr. Howard quickly resigned, and DC Mayor Anthony Williams, who is black, accepted his resignation.
Normally, that would have ended the crisis. But then Mr. Howard received support from unexpected places. Julian Bond, the head of the NAACP at the time, jumped to Mr. Howard’s defense:
"You hate to think you have to censor your language to meet other people’s lack of understanding. David Howard should not have quit. Mayor Williams should bring him back — and order dictionaries issued to all staff who need them.”
So here’s the question: What should your crisis response be if you say something that sounds offensive, but technically isn’t?
Should you resign because you’ve used a word that could be easily misconstrued, or should you fight back and point to other peoples’ ignorance? In this case, I place most of the blame on Mayor Williams. He should have refused to accept Mr. Howard’s resignation and issued a statement along these lines instead:
“Mr. Howard was using a word that means ‘miserly,’ and which has nothing to do with race. I’m not going to accept the resignation of a talented public servant just because some people didn’t know the definition of the word. That said, I might suggest that people working for city government try to avoid using the word from now on. We’ve all seen how easily words can be misconstrued in a city that has too often had a difficult racial history, and we can express the concept of ‘miserly’ without using a word that’s so easily misinterpreted.”
Within a couple of weeks, Mayor Williams finally did the right thing – he offered Mr. Howard his job back. In a statement, Mr. Williams admitted the obvious: “I believe I acted too hastily in accepting David’s resignation."
Have the best of the blog delivered to your inbox twice per month! Enter your name in the box on the upper right of the blog to join our mailing list.