By Richard Neer
WFAN, New York
Talk Show Host
NEW YORK — First, the advice I’m giving is pretty simple: In this day and age of instant communication, it is downright foolish to risk your career over what in the past might have been considered a harmless ethnic joke. As to whether lifetime banishment is appropriate for a thoughtless remark, that’s another discussion.
Many factors go into what an employer should do in such cases. It’s a judgment call as to intent. Once a firestorm has been created around a specific comment, rarely will anyone admit that they deliberately put something out there that could be construed as offensive. Excuses can be quite legitimate. I very much doubt that everyone under 30 is aware that the word “chink” is a derogatory term for Chinese. And the offending phrase including “in the armor” has been in usage for centuries in warfare and for decades as it pertains to a perceived weakness in an athletic sense. We might be on a dangerous road that eventually will forbid the term “Achilles’ heel” as insulting to Greeks. Not understanding every archaic phrase of the English language should not rise to the level of firing offense.
It would be great if the old adage that “words can never hurt me” could be applied in all cases. And if we could magically erase all bigotry from the world, there would be no need to take offense at any expression. But sadly, we have not reached that point and I doubt we ever will. Therefore, any use of words that implies that my heritage is inferior to yours will be hurtful. It’s easy to tell someone they shouldn’t be offended. In practice however, it dismisses racial history. Would that we could all adhere to the philosophy expressed in the GEICO commercial and merely “skip the pancake social.”
The group identity question raised by Mr. Valentine ignores history as well. In earlier times, how many Italians took pride in the accomplishments of Joe DiMaggio; or Irishmen with a number of champion boxers; or Jews with Hank Greenberg? People vote for candidates for president sometimes on the sole basis that he’s “one of us,” even though his policies may be antithetical to their interests. Why deny the same rooting interest to the Chinese or Taiwanese? Ethnic pride is raised by overcoming the negative stereotype – after years of being told that you can’t do something, people take satisfaction in proving that they can, thus putting the stereotypes to bed, at least temporarily.
I would agree that when the usage of a term is clearly unintentional, a reprimand and a warning about careless use of language should suffice. It’s hard to read the dismissed ESPN employee’s statement that his actions should outweigh his words and not sympathize. Employers should show more courage and loyalty toward their workers when an honest mistake has been made. And in the case of the suspended anchor who is actually married to an Asian, good sense should prevail over the expediency of punishment for the sake of public relations.
But until we reach that time of enlightenment, my original point stands: DON’T GO THERE. And educate yourself about which waters are perilous to tread and avoid them. If that fails, pray that you have a supportive employer.
But what we can’t defend is if a media figure deliberately ignores sensitivities for the sake of a cheap laugh line. In that case, beware the righteous wrath that will be unleashed.
Richard Neer is a sports talk host at WFAN, New York, an anchor on A Touch of Grey, and sports editor of TALKERS magazine. He can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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