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 It was a simple joke with repercussions—the aftermath of the words   caused an absolute frenzy—“Downright. Niggardly.”  If you look up the word niggardly in the dictionary, there is assuredly a definition… Reluctant to give or spend;  stingy;  ungenerously scanty. Yet… its’ phonetic association with a racial slur aimed at African-Americans can augment the term beyond nine letters and into years of oppression, slavery, and marginalization based on race.  Of course, “niggardly” has no real connection to the racial slur— yet many call for it to be banished from the dictionary, not for its’ denotation but for its’ connotation.

It was at the bar that I first heard the word. A group of about 10 folks joined to celebrate the end of a hectic week—the group was diverse in race, gender, age, and discipline. After a few rounds of brews, John—the ultimate kidder— told a joke about a black boss who left small tips. I can’t remember the exact joke, but what I can remember was the punchline— “Downright. Niggardly.” It came to the group … just like a punch. No one laughed. Everyone looked around, took a sip, looked down, fidgeted with clothing. John laughed at the top of his lungs—Get it “Downright niggardly?” He looked puzzled that no one had joined him to laugh.  It wasn’t funny.

Cultural competence is described as possessing the awareness, attitudes, knowledge, and skills necessary to interact (lead, build relationships, communicate) with people across different cultures. In today’s ever-changing, global community, the need to posses cultural competence is more essential than ever. “Having insight into the cultural dynamics of a country, ethnic group, historical trends and influence, or geographical region is essential in understanding why people behave the way they do and think the way they think.” When you are culturally competent, you constantly engage in conversations with yourself about your assumptions, respect cultural diversity, and learn to effectively develop socially constructed meaning about things such as language, media, business, etc. You would be able to analyze your audience, like a group with four African-Americans, and know that the word “niggardly” could invoke triggers and faultlines that could affect your relationship with an African-American.

Washington DC had its’ run in with “Downright Niggardly,” when then-Mayor Anthony Williams accepted and then rescinded the resignation of David Howard, a white staff member, who used the term to describe the state of the economy and the distribution of sparse resources. The mayor explained that although Howard didn’t say  ‘anything that was in itself racist,’  however, using a word that could be misunderstood was like ‘getting caught smoking in a refinery with a resulting explosion.’ The resignation and then rehire of Howard was, of course, a shock and a tragedy but it had a good result too. It sensitized us all to the hidden and hurtful ethnic slurs that darken–oops, sorry–that afflict American life and highlighted the need for cultural competence training.

Fester like a sore…   referring to Langston Hughes’ poem A Dream Defered

 After some reflection on my own part, I am confident that John is not a racist—  he just had a moment where he was culturally incompetent. Yes, he is a white guy from Southwest Virginia, but he’s spent summers in Mongolia and is a kind hearted, open guy. He apologized and I know he was sincere. I kicked myself for not using the “ah-ha moment” as a learning piece; I was just as culturally incompetent as he was at that moment for not doing so. Folks were downright angry. Instead of letting people leave and letting the wound fester like a sore as Langston Hughes once said… What we needed to do was to use it as a learning moment centered in “cultural competence.”  Humor can invoke insensitivity, civil discourse, and in this case a frenzy; but we have to use humor and these type of moments to be able to discuss and then counteract real issues and real thinking. Some folks may snigger—oops— snicker at this notion.

As Mayor Williams said in response, “We must use this moment to understand that we still live and thrive in a racially-hurt society; what we, on both sides of the coin, must do is learn from our mistakes, however innocent they may be.” When we do not recognize moments where we are culturally incompetent and how that influences our interaction—now that?  That is when our thinking is “Downright Niggardly!”


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