Author Topic: The power of words (race issues mentioned)  (Read 9400 times)

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Jaelle

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The power of words (race issues mentioned)
« on: August 03, 2010, 10:44:09 AM »
This happened quite a while ago, but I've been thinking about it a lot lately due to a similar situation between two friends of mine. I'm honestly curious what you'll think ... no offense is intended. I really want to know!

I was working at a newspaper in a small city, perhaps 60 percent ethnic group X, 40 percent ethnic group Y. (I'm Y, as were 99 percent of the newsroom employees. This wasn't so much the fault of the paper as the fact that we almost never had group X applicants.)

One of my co-workers, a journalism veteran, was assigned to cover an event at a local school ... not the kind of thing he usually wrote, but a fluff piece, if you will. All the same, he handled it with good grace and wrote an entertaining little story about the event.

Then all heck broke loose.

The school principal called us, incensed that co-worker (I'll call him CW) used a particular phrase in his story. She said it was racist. She wanted his head. Others called in as well.

We were baffled. I can honestly tell you that this phrase had never once occurred to any of us as having any racial connotation. CW was a sweetheart, and I'm absolutely positive he meant no offense in the slightest. In fact, he was appalled.

Editor, CW and members of the school staff and a local anti-racism group had a meeting, at which CW apologized profusely, but insisted he had no idea the phrase was offensive. No one was appeased. Editor wound up making CW write a public apology that ran in the paper.

CW did so, but thought it made him look like he was, indeed, racist. He left the paper not long later, and I think he got out of the field entirely. Many of us became quite disillusioned with Editor after that, feeling he should have stood by CW.

Eleven years older and wiser, I understand a little more the position Editor was in, with a readership area that tilted toward group X (and a newsroom that, obviously, didn't.) I also found out later that the group had not been happy with the resolution at all ... they wanted CW sacked entirely. So Editor at least protected his job.

What do you think? Did Editor do right? Did CW? How could this have been handled better?

I'll tell you the phrase if you want. I'm still a little baffled by it ... but I never use it when writing anymore.
“She was already learning that if you ignore the rules people will, half the time, quietly rewrite them so that they don't apply to you.”
― Terry Pratchett, Equal Rites

BabyMama

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Re: The power of words (race issues mentioned)
« Reply #1 on: August 03, 2010, 10:55:04 AM »
As an editor, I'm very curious to see that the term was!

I had a case sort of like this a couple years ago. I worked with an older gentleman. We primarily work on literature focused toward teen readers. I was proofing his work and came across a cutline to a photo. It was something like, "A group of boys watch an arousing game of soccer." To make it worse, the picture was of a group of older teen boys, facing away from the camera and watching a soccer game through a hole in a fence. Of course my older coworker had no idea that teens would read his caption and think something completely different... :-[ I simply crossed out the word, suggested new phrasing, and hoped he wouldn't fight me on it.

In the OP case, I think getting the outside parties involved was overkill. Couldn't the paper have printed a retraction? Did the editor not notice the term at all? (Again, I want to know what it was!)

Amava

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Re: The power of words (race issues mentioned)
« Reply #2 on: August 03, 2010, 11:08:11 AM »
I think people have the right to feel offended by the use of a certain wording, and to mention it to the writer politely.
When the writer then apologises and explains that it was an honest mistake, they should accept that apology and move on with their life already.

Pushing the matter, in my opinion, is vindictive and petty. Asking for the writer to be sacked was totally out of line, unreasonable and entitlement-minded. This kind of behaviour does NOT give any groups who pull it a good name.

I think the editor should have stood by his employee. A diplomatic way to resolve this would have been an apology in the newspaper not in the name of the one employee but in the name of the newspaper as an institution (since nobody noticed it, it wasn't just the one writer).

(And I also want to know what the word was.)

TurtleDove

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Re: The power of words (race issues mentioned)
« Reply #3 on: August 03, 2010, 11:08:23 AM »
Did the editor not notice the term at all? (Again, I want to know what it was!)

I also would like to know what it was.  The fact that it got past editing would seem to indicate that the editor did not have a problem with the phrase either (or, if the editor claims he did have a problem with the phrase, that he is not a good editor).  

drebay

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Re: The power of words (race issues mentioned)
« Reply #4 on: August 03, 2010, 11:13:00 AM »
Without knowing the phrase, it is hard to decide.  Sometimes by making a big apology, things are made worse because people that didn't see an offense will go back and look for it.

Jaelle

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Re: The power of words (race issues mentioned)
« Reply #5 on: August 03, 2010, 11:19:39 AM »
The phrase got past the editors because no one had any idea at all it was offensive, honestly. The editor got the outside groups involved because of that dichotomy ... I think he honestly had good intentions.

The writer described the event (sort of a "reading is fun!" sort of thing, if I remember correctly, with games and skits and the like) as having a "circus atmosphere." Which to him (and me, and all the rest of us) meant "fun and games and excitement!" and apparently to the other group meant "chaos and poking fun at their heritage." The term was called demeaning.
“She was already learning that if you ignore the rules people will, half the time, quietly rewrite them so that they don't apply to you.”
― Terry Pratchett, Equal Rites

whiterose

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Re: The power of words (race issues mentioned)
« Reply #6 on: August 03, 2010, 11:48:01 AM »
It's not like he engaged in malicious name calling. He truly was not aware that the phrase was racist. He apologized. Everybody makes mistakes. There truly were no bad intentions on his part. He should not have lost his job.

In no way would I imagine "circus atmosphere" to be poking fun at any kind of heritage. They truly should have accepted his apology. I have never heard that phrase being used in a derogatory way against ANY kind of group. A circus is not chaotic. On the contrary- all the performances are organized and rehearsed. It may be fun and bumbling- but it is certainly not chaotic in any way. The performers train hard to bring fun to the audience. And there are safety precautions being taken.

« Last Edit: August 03, 2010, 11:50:42 AM by whiterose »
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MindsEye

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Re: The power of words (race issues mentioned)
« Reply #7 on: August 03, 2010, 11:50:28 AM »
I can't even begin to think of how the phrase" circus atmosphere" could be racist (what heritage does it "poke fun at"?) or what group it is supposed to be offensive to!  

The principle of the school and the other outside people of group X were severely special snowflakes to demand that the reporter be sacked over that!

Amava

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Re: The power of words (race issues mentioned)
« Reply #8 on: August 03, 2010, 12:01:30 PM »
The phrase got past the editors because no one had any idea at all it was offensive, honestly. The editor got the outside groups involved because of that dichotomy ... I think he honestly had good intentions.

The writer described the event (sort of a "reading is fun!" sort of thing, if I remember correctly, with games and skits and the like) as having a "circus atmosphere." Which to him (and me, and all the rest of us) meant "fun and games and excitement!" and apparently to the other group meant "chaos and poking fun at their heritage." The term was called demeaning.

That is completely ridiculous.

Roe

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Re: The power of words (race issues mentioned)
« Reply #9 on: August 03, 2010, 12:06:04 PM »
Really? People were offended by "circus atomosphere?"  Given that the phrase isn't racist, the editor should've stood up for CW more.

BabyMama

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Re: The power of words (race issues mentioned)
« Reply #10 on: August 03, 2010, 12:09:57 PM »
In that case, I feel like the editor should have taken the fall, sorry. I get it drilled into me here that, whenever something is wrong in a book, whether it be things you can control, like typos, or things you can't, like an incorrect image or not crediting someone correctly, in the end it's the editor who has to answer for it.

Shoo

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Re: The power of words (race issues mentioned)
« Reply #11 on: August 03, 2010, 12:20:36 PM »
Circus atmosphere?  That's the phrase those people were all up in arms about?

Ridiculous.

Your CW's editor failed him miserably. 

zoidberg

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Re: The power of words (race issues mentioned)
« Reply #12 on: August 03, 2010, 12:26:24 PM »
Honestly, the people who are shouting "racism" at that phrase should have a good long think about their own prejudices. Pray tell, which ethnic group should feel slighted by "circus atmosphere"? If the reasoning is that they think one particular group is known for being circus artists over all others (which is most definitly not the case, at least not in the world I live in) then they are actually the ones being offensive.

This is insane!

Rohanna

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Re: The power of words (race issues mentioned)
« Reply #13 on: August 03, 2010, 12:28:30 PM »
I could see if he'd described it as "a zoo-like atmosphere" because that would be comparing people to animals, and could carry strong negative connatations, even if the intent was just to imply zany and fun chaos. However...I *have* seen circus-like used with negative intent- a rowdy courtroom or over-the-top wedding can be described as circus-like.
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Hushabye

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Re: The power of words (race issues mentioned)
« Reply #14 on: August 03, 2010, 12:30:32 PM »
???  I might have gone with "carnival-like" instead of "circus-like" for the reason Shu mentioned, but I would never have thought either would be seen as racist.  ???