There’s no HR friendly or PC way to tell this story and fortunately no one was harmed in the making of this incredibly awkward exchange…
My father has been in this country for over 30 years, but there is only so much nuance and cultural literacy one can own in the absence of having not been born and raised in this country. And even then, many people still either choose to, are not exposed to, or find it difficult to understand how various races and cultures operate linguistically.
That’s enough of a preface, so boom:
My father and a white employee of ours were working hard in moving a shipment of oxygen tanks to the basement of our previous office. This was hard work. They were both up and down stairs carrying these cylinders that are heavy and that you also have to take care not to bang up. Our employee was working their ass off and my father was really impressed.
While they are up and down, I’m minding the phone lines. And as they are working I can hear their conversation both because I have the ears of a demigod but also because the walls were paper thin. All of a sudden I hear my father say, “Wow you are a really hardworking redneck!” To which she responded with a laugh.
After the panic subsided I immediately pulled my father aside for a hushed conversation and told him to never use the word again. He was shocked! He said he thought it was a compliment. And sure the denotation of the word is based on the premise that when a white person is working hard outside, and their neck is exposed to the sun, it gets red. The connotation is what gets us in trouble. I had to parallel the use of the n-word; because while not nearly as offensive, the same rules apply. If you’re not of that race, just don’t use it. Put in that context he felt horrible and said he would make it right.
I then heard him approach the co-worker and ask her if the term he used was appropriate for the circumstance because he wasn’t sure. He mentioned that all his white friends used it, so he thought he could too. She went on to tell him that she used it all the time and it was okay that he used it. But, that sometimes people may get offended. But she wasn’t. He apologized and said that he did not know the term could be offensive and that he really wanted just to convey how much he admired her strength. She laughed and said that there was no issue.
She came to me laughing and began to tell me the story so I too could have a good laugh. I acted as if I knew nothing and then made sure she saw that I was mortified. I immediately apologized to her and told her that he probably didn’t understand the meaning behind the use of the term.
In a way, I can’t blame my father. When you are black and an immigrant, and you come to a country like America; is there much that can verbally harm white people? In a nation built for the gain of whites, what stones can you throw to dent their exterior? The reality is that white people in America have never been slaves, subjugated, or maligned. There is no white subaltern voice in America because they have always maintained hegemony. The language reflects this. The language of the colonizer, unless dismantled or altered, will always inherently favor them. This is why the employee laughed, because ultimately what’s a redneck to a nigger?
In any case, this serves as a beautiful example of immigrant acculturation. There’s only so much our environment can afford us, outside of seeking that information ourselves. We still laugh about the whole thing. And fortunately, my father can now avoid such a faux pas in the future.