Inside Philanthropy

A blog on philanthropy and nonprofit news and issues. A publication of Philanthropy Journal.

February 25, 2008

Political correctness curbs social progress

The nonprofit world’s recognition of the importance of diversity can lead to political correctness that sometimes is self-defeating.

Rather than confronting words or actions that can seem hurtful, especially on issues of race, ethnicity or gender, people who work for nonprofits and foundations often choose silence and deference to members of a racial, ethnic or gender group who voice concern about those words or actions.

Liberals and progressives, in particular, tend to be overly concerned with preserving their image of being open and inclusive of everyone, especially on highly-charged and complex issues of race.

So they avoid confronting the very problems they are fighting to address.

Consider a recent exchange at a nonprofit that has set itself the task of ending racism.

During an interview with a finalist for the job of executive director, a member of the search committee asked the candidate to talk about the importance of public relations and communications.

The candidate, a white woman, told the committee that while it can be a “bugaboo” for nonprofits, communicating effectively is a critical job.

After the candidate left the room, and at the tail end of a much longer discussion that followed about her qualifications, an African-American member of the committee said the word “bugaboo” had racial connotations.

A standard dictionary definition of the word, which is possibly of Celtic origin, refers to “something that causes fear or distress out of proportion to its importance.”

That is the meaning the candidate, who is middle-aged, says she intended.

When the committee member later suggested to her colleagues it might be a racial slur, several of them agreed, while several others said they had not been aware the word had that meaning.

Regardless of that initial difference of opinion, all committee members by the end of the brief discussion apparently had accepted, or failed to challenge, the suggestion that the candidate had used a slur.

One committee member said later that the episode underscored the value of having a diverse committee because now all the committee members are better educated about the word’s racial sensitivity.

The candidate was not invited back for a second interview, a decision reportedly not based on her use of the word.

Yet the committee did not formally communicate to the candidate some members’ concern about her use of the word, nor did they give her an opportunity to respond.

The episode cuts to the core of a communications gap, often driven by political correctness, that can perpetuate racial misunderstanding.

The candidate says she was not aware the word had any racial connotation, and was stunned when she later learned second-hand that a search-committee member had raised the issue.

A Google search finds that African-American singer Beyoncé has used the word in a song to characterize a man who annoyed her.

And a check with finds a handful of entries left by visitors to the site who suggest the term is urban slang for an annoying person, usually a suitor.

More significantly, however, “bugaboo” happens to sound a lot like another word that is indeed an ugly racial slur when a “j” and an “i” are substituted for the first two letters.

So it is possible that when the candidate said “bugaboo,” the committee member heard the other word, or simply believed “bugaboo” was off limits.

For her part, the candidate says she was not familiar with the slur that sounds like “bugaboo.”

And consider the context: She says her intention was to use “bugaboo,” with the meaning she understood it to have, to respond to the committee member’s question by saying that effective communication is an ongoing challenge for nonprofits.

During the interview, however, committee members who may have been offended by her use of the word failed to voice their concerns directly to her, a conversation that could have prevented similar misunderstandings by both sides in the future.

Simply engaging the candidate in a conversation might have helped her and the committee members better understand one another, as well as the extraordinary power of words, even when used innocently, to hurt and divide.

And doing a little research might have helped everyone involved better understand what the word means and does not mean, and who uses it, and in what context they use it.

The committee members also failed to truly question their colleague who suggested “bugaboo” was a slur, and instead simply accepted her interpretation.

That is precisely the kind of response often taken by well-meaning people working for nonprofits and foundations.

The more productive response among people who want to end racial misunderstanding would have been to discuss the issue while the candidate still was in the room.

Or later, at least, once the candidate had left the room and their colleague had raised the issue, the other members should have shown a little more backbone in questioning the suggestion that it was a slur.

They also should have examined whether the word was in fact offensive in the context in which it was used and with the intent with which it was used.

But too many people take the easy way out because they do not want to get stuck in awkward conversations, or be perceived as being anything other than totally open and inclusive.

In other words, they fear being seen as uninformed or racist.

As a result, too many words have become off limits, replaced by a vocabulary of mush, a comforting jargon of safe words, guarding against any and all perceived slights, devoid of clarity, directness, common sense and the power to communicate deep-felt human emotions and beliefs.

By failing to make any effort to learn more about the source of the concern their colleague raised, or to talk openly to the executive-director candidate, the search committee simply helped perpetuate the racial misunderstanding its organization wants to end.

If, among themselves and with those who want to work with them, the leaders of an organization committed to ending racism cannot talk honestly about the meaning and use of vocabulary, their mission will remain only a dream.

As the candidate for the job tried to suggest to the search committee, communication does indeed represent for nonprofits “something that causes fear or distress out of proportion to its importance.”


  • At 2:35 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Hi, everyone.

    Remember the incident, during the Nineties I believe, when a city employee of Washington, D.C., using the word "niggardly" to refer to "miserly," was removed for a while from his job because somebody else thought the word to mean something else?

    There is another incident which I recall, of a person being chastised, perhaps fired, because the executive director of a nonprofit thought "pedagogy" was pornographic.

    It is sadly amusing when we bow to the "least common denominator," that is, to using language which cannot be offensive to anybody in any way, whatever his or her level of education. Maybe, through the back door, we are witnessing the language of 1984 gaining life and strength.

    Van Ajemian

  • At 10:10 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I find it ironic that in this column that asserts that "political correctness" (and honest to god, I wish that phrase would just go away---when was the last time anyone tried overtly to enforce PC on anyone?---when was the last time you heard anyone chiding someone else by saying "That's not PC"?---1986?---does anyone anywhere use the term "politically correct" in any way except pejoratively now?) curbs social progress, and argues for greater honesty and forthrightness in communication, the author couldn't bring himself to type the word "jigaboo." The bugaboo/jigaboo anecdote, even if true (and I'm not entirely sure I believe it is), isn't an example of PC run amok. I think we can all agree that if the interviewee had used the word "jigaboo," the African-American committee member would have been entirely justified in taking offense. That's not PC, that's just common sense. Rather, the anecdote is an example of ignorance run amok. No one on the committee was confident enough in his or her knowledge to say to the wrongheaded African-American committee member who was offended, "Uh, no, sorry, you're just wrong here. No offense, but you're thinking of the word 'jigaboo.' I guarantee you that the word 'bugaboo' carries no racial baggage. You can look it up." Perhaps, additionally, there's a dynamic on the board that generally discourages members from publicly correcting (i.e., showing up) other members---but wouldn't that have more to do with observing social niceties (i.e., social correctness, or SC) than it would with "political correctness"?


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