Monday, April 16, 2007

Slip of the Tongue

(This column by George Beetham, Jr., originally appeared in The Review.)

Who among us has never said or done something egregious and wished it could be taken back? Humans seem to have a propensity to open our mouths and insert our feet.

Radio personality Imus is the latest to join the club after he criticized the Rutgers University women's basketball team and used racially-charged language.

Sometimes, when we learn about these things, I wonder how somebody can be so blatantly oblivious.

The list is endless. It includes, among many others, Jesse Jackson, who for the record is demonstrating against Imus. Jackson, some may recall, once made a disparaging remark about Jewish people.

We live in a time of heightened sensibilities. It should be obvious that how we conduct ourselves and what we say is closely monitored. One slip of the tongue can wreck a lifetime career.

Is it fair? I have no idea.

On one level, the old adage that it's not what I say, but what I do that I should be judged on applies.

But when it comes to ethnicity, what we say and how we say it is often revealing.

I grew up in a racist environment. To dismiss it would be wrong. It may have been because of ignorance, but racism is what it is.

I'm not proud of that, but I'm also not about to deny my past. I hope and trust that I've spent a lifetime fighting racism, both within myself and without. That fight will continue until I die.

A recent article in New Scientist pointed out that children notice skin color at an early age. Yes, we all notice color. But there's a difference between noticing skin color and using skin color as a reason to discriminate.

That article went on to say that people tend to form alliances more readily among people like themselves rather than embracing people different from themselves.

If that is human nature, then we need to question whether we should not work to change human nature.

If we look beyond the obvious we find that all people are pretty much alike. We love our families, we enjoy life when and where we can, and we all long for things to get better.

We share hopes and dreams.

Another thing that should be apparent is that if we celebrate our differences rather than isolating ourselves, we enrich our lives. And if we celebrate our differences, then perhaps we would not be caught in the trap of saying something we'd instantly regret.

Words, like bullets from a gun, cannot be recalled.

When we say something hurtful, we can apologize until we're blue in the face. The other person can forgive us, and life can go on. But we can't call those words back. They will always be out there, will always be associated with who and what we are.

Over the span of my life, I've associated with many people of all races, religions, ethnic backgrounds, and lifestyles. Most have been wonderful people. They've enriched my life immeasurably. I only hope I've done the same for them.

I hope I'd never say anything to hurt those people, intentionally or by an inadvertent slip of the tongue.

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