You may find this hard to believe given half the things I say, but I do have a 'self-editing' mode. I often bite back the really stupid/insensitive/crude/banal things that pop into my head. Today I was a witness when someone else's mouth was running faster than their self-editor.
We were in a meeting where a manager was outlining a new process, which seems great. "However," he said, "the only nigg-" and then he stopped and put his hand to his mouth.
He could have rescued it and said "ul" - 'the only niggle', but that wasn't what he was going to say and we all knew it, especially when, after a shocked one-second-that-felt-like-an-eternity pause he said, embarrasedly, "in the woodpile, is..." and explained the drawback to the system.
To his credit he looked very red in the face and he did catch himself. And he was willing to admit that he had almost said something pitifully medieval that could cause offence. But it was still one of those nasty surprises that left us all sitting there wondering whether we had really heard what we had heard.
There never were many rascialist analogies in the English language. 'Nigger in the woodpile' was one of the few, although my Dad says he remembers his mother asking for 'Nigger Brown' cotton in a haberdashers when he was small. It was the official colour, named that by the manufacturer. When people complain about the passing of the good old days they forget the latent institutionalised racism.
But what do you do when someone casts around for an analogy and begins to use a bad one without thinking? Do you take offence? Do you make a formal complaint? Do you have a quiet word? Do you laugh out of sheer shock and embarrassment? Or do you do what my friend Ross did and ask loudly "Who says we're a white, middle-class organisation then?"
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