Several years ago I was in a medical school gross anatomy lab, working with a fellow student with whom I’d been teamed for months and who I considered a friend. The hours were long, the work hard, and hey, it’s a dead body between you. Humor was a vital retreat from time to time.
I’m not a natural comedian by any measure, but I think I have a decent sense of humor. I can also drop passable comic impressions when the mood strikes me. I once derailed an entire Biochemistry lecture with a Colonel Jessup impression that burst past my filters (You have to ask me nicely). So late one evening in the lab, carried away by some mutual comic banter, I dropped a Foghorn Leghorn comment, terminated by his stereotypical “boy!”
My friends eyes went double wide and, although I had never actually experienced it, I was pretty sure I was seeing someone getting ready to jump across the table at me, dead body or no. “Who you calling boy!” came across the table instead, and my brain raced to figure out what sort of land mine I had just stepped on.
I was a wannabe beach bum from Southern California, of mainly British and Irish descent, using a term that I thought ranked somewhere around “laddie” in its potential for offense. My friend, on the other hand, was African-American and from the southeastern US. In the fraction of a second I had to process this, I still had time to wonder if his reaction had something to do with race, and experience the beginnings of a horrified realization about how it must have sounded.
I don’t remember exactly how we calmed the situation down, but I can tell you very clearly what didn’t happen. He did not call me a piece of shit cracker. He did not proclaim to the room that his no tolerance policy on racism required him to unfriend me on Facebook. He did not organize a Twitter campaign to publicly vilify me, get me fired, kicked out of school, or otherwise ruin my life.
What I do remember was watching his face as he clearly made a decision to let it go. And with that small moment of restraint, he gave me time to realize that I had offended him, and a moment more for it to occur to me in what way. That allowed me to do what decent people everywhere manage to do without any sensitivity training at all. We apologize. We feel sorry for being unintentionally offensive. We try to understand the why.
This was ignorance, not racism, and I think he was thoughtful enough even in the heat of his reaction to understand the difference. If social media is any indication, it’s a quality quite beyond many people out there, most of whom have far less grounds to claim offense than he did. If their stated desire is truly to make the world a more tolerant place, they need to remember that exactly zero people in history have been persuaded to a better way by public shaming and a vicious enumeration of their faults (it’s actually more of a 17th century white Puritan Salem kind of thing.)
I’ve lived a little longer now and in many different places, including the deep south. I have a little better understanding of what my friend may have experienced with those words before we ever met. I may make other mistakes in my treatment of folks around me, but hopefully I have a solid flag planted on this particular mine. Although we never spoke about it again, I’ve carried a persistent gratitude from that day, that he chose to give me a little space to learn and recover from a mistake. It’s the necessary maneuvering room that any society needs to grow and change.