This story actually begins with the fact that I don’t have a gall bladder. I had mine removed when I was eighteen. This means if I overdo it with rich food, I feel sluggish and bloated. It’s just one of my body’s quirks.
And that quirk is how I found out I was using racist language without realizing it.
Late last year after a holiday meal, I posted on Facebook that I was suffering from “the ‘itis”. It’s a term I’d known of for a long time that to me meant the feeling of being sluggish and overstuffed. Kind of a joke I’d make after overindulging.
Then I learned it had a toxic history.
A former colleague reached out to me on Facebook Messenger about my post. We’d always had a nice relationship. Now and then we’d run into each other and talk about issues of faith and family. We even prayed for needs in each other’s lives. Once she moved on to attend seminary, we stayed in touch on Facebook.
In her message, she asked how my family and I were doing. Then, in the most gracious way, told me that the term “the ‘itis” actually has a racially-charged connotation. She sent me a link to an article that listed five phrases that have racist origins. Apparently, the term I used is a shortened form of “n****ritis”, a derogatory term stereotyping black people as lazy.
I was crushed and mortified, quickly apologizing for my gaffe.
She replied by telling me she knew I could not possibly have known the origin of the term because I’d used it at all. She knew me better than that. Because we already had a relationship, we were able to have this dialogue privately and calmly. I’m grateful for my friend’s grace and kindness in calling it to my attention.
As a veteran English teacher who teaches about race, I was ignorant when it came to this particular phrase. Teachers also learn a lesson sometimes. A knowledge gap led to my use of a term that is offensive to Black people. I might have hurt someone by using it, even unknowingly.
I don’t want to be that person. I want to be a bridge-builder and advocate. Therefore, I have to be open and willing to hear from others who can enlighten me. Allowing others to speak their truth must be my default setting.
Thank goodness I had someone in my life who was willing to bring it to my attention and educate me. As much as I try to be an ally and do and say the right things, I obviously still have more to learn. I suspect many people do.
Try as I might to get it right, there are certain things I am blind and ignorant to. That doesn’t sit well, but it’s true. Coming to grips with our own lack of knowledge and understanding as White people can be painful and awkward. When we stumble, responding with humility is key.
White people don’t get to define what is and isn’t offensive to other races. We must listen, learn, and change our approach. Having a friend who was willing to speak up and explain my error means a lot to me. It helps me be a better ally and builds bridges of understanding where they are lacking. And that’s how change is made.