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.