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."
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A good point well made. There is another issue that has raised it’s head in IT. There are a class of databases and systems called Master/Slave. I have heard this objected to along the lines of showing off white supremacy etc.
I wouldn’t necessarily resign that quickly, and try to resolve that with concerned parties first. Especially if it involves miscommunication, I’d do my best to clarify what I actually meant what I said.
That said, my response would be something like, “Pardon if there was maybe some miscommunication, and I mean this or that. Does this help?”. Feel free to critique and improve on that. 🙂
Excellent point, Brad! I’ve always had more than a passing curiosity about the origin of words, and most people today have forgotten or never knew the real meaning behind the words they use. It reminds me of a TV show I was watching where the term “gay” came up and one of the characters had to explain “that’s when it meant happy.”
IMHO, your case study draws attention to society’s knee-jerk reaction to anything even remotely controversial. And it seems that the standard response in these cases is to fire or ask for resignations in concert with news cycles, not accurate investigations.
I think an good example of this jumping the gun approach is the Shirley Sherrod incident. While Ms. Sherrod did not fall on her sword like Mr. Howard, it does go to show how rushing to judgement before knowing the facts creates an even bigger crisis communication situation. In both instances, government officials were proven wrong, forced to publicly recant their actions, and ask the former employees back.
Speed is important, but I feel it’s just as (if not more) important to know what you’re talking about before going on the record.
Terrific comment, and I really appreciate your well-made analogy to the Shirley Sherrod incident (I wish I had thought of that parallel myself!).
I was torn when writing this article. On one hand, I believe that the adage, “It’s not what you say, it’s what they hear” usually applies to these types of situations. But in this case, what they heard was based on their own ignorance of the word, which shouldn’t result in a public official losing his position.
I was in a Toastmasters meeting several years ago. I was responsible for the Word of the Day. When I introduced the word, fallacious, the audiences’ collective jaws dropped. I was immediately disturbed at the shocked expressions on their faces. It wasn’t until I asked them if they knew what it meant, that I realized they thought I was referencing something totally different. I must have spoken the word too quickly and with my own unique Texas/Okie accent, the word was a bit mispronounced. I quickly gave the definition of the word and you could see their bodies relax as they were relieved that I wasn’t referencing a male body part. I was mortified at the time, but today I find it hilarious. Instead of being fired, I suppose I was in danger of being laughed right out of the room.
Keep a dictionary handy. Most people, so it seems, don’t know the difference between “their”, “there” and “they’re”. Multi-syllables are bound to confuse.
LOL @ Donna – funny story indeed !! 🙂
After reflecting on the draft statement I would probably suggest the mayor not use “ignorant” because of its negative connotations. Perhaps “a word we we don’t often hear”.
I think this is a great example Brad; niggardly is one of those words that could be used to taunt even when people know what it means. It could also be misheard, leading to unnecessary commotion.
After reading this and a Wiki entry on controversies associated with “niggardly” I don’t even feel comfortable typing it – and I’m British and have lived in Asia for 30 years,
Thank you for your comment, and you’re right: “a word we don’t often hear” would be a less judgmental phrasing.
Thanks for reading!
[…] 20. David Howard, former head of the Washington D.C. Office of Public Advocate, was forced to resign for using the word “niggardly” when talking about budgetary matters. “Niggardly” means ‘not generous; stingy.’ – Source […]