It's Nice to Be Asked

January 05, 1994|By CLARENCE PAGE

Washington. -- A couple of sharp-eyed readers of this column caught me in a ''gotcha'' of political correctness. They wanted me to know I had offended some people by my use of a certain word in a column I had written. The word was ''Eskimo.''

Use Aleut or Inuit or some other native ethnic label, I was told. ''Eskimo,'' like ''Indian'' or ''Negro,'' is a word white settlers conferred on the native non-white people of Alaska, Canada and other regions of the frigid north, not a term they chose for themselves.

My first impulse was to tell these sharp-eyed readers where to go. It is irritating to be accused of insensitivity when you know that was not your intent. But I was cool. I calmly apologized for any offense and promised to be more careful. After all, I said diplomatically, people are entitled to be called what they want to be called, not what I want to call them.

''But, what,'' I wondered, ''does this mean for Eskimo Pie ice cream bars?'' That's their problem, my caller said.

I guess it is. It is a problem just about every corporate manager is wrestling with. The editors at the Los Angeles Times stirred up an internal commotion with a recently issued 19-page booklet: ''Guidelines on Ethnic, Racial, Sexual and Other Identification.''

Drafted by a 22-member committee and issued by editor Shelby Coffey III, its words to avoid include ''WASP'' (''may be pejorative,'') ''co-ed'' (''considered derogatory to female college students,'') ''Dutch treat'' (''an offensive reference to sharing expenses,'') ''mailman'' (''many women hold this job'') ''mankind'' (''humanity, human beings and humankind are preferred'') and ''man-made'' (''the preferred words are artificial, manufactured and synthetic'').

Other taboo terms: ''deaf,'' ''babe,'' ''bra-burner,'' ''Chinese fire drill,'' ''crazy,'' ''normal,'' ''gal,'' ''ghetto,'' ''inner city,'' ''gypped'' (a derogatory spin-off of ''Gypsy'') ''handicapped,'' ''hillbilly,'' ''holy rollers,'' ''Indians,'' ''queer,'' ''welsher'' (a derogatory spin-off of ''Welsh'') ''white trash'' and, yes, ''Eskimo.''

Some staffers could not believe their eyes. In one eloquent memo, the newspaper's Washington bureau observed that the Times' list itself could have used a little more editing.

Although Mr. Coffey insists the list should be taken as suggestions, not rules, at least some of its notations (''Birth defect: use congenital disability''; ''Deaf: Avoid the term.'') are quite likely to be interpreted as decrees by cautious -- or timid -- editors, the memo said. ''The journey from shunning offensive words to shying away from painful facts and subjects is short,'' it added. ''It is too easy for editors and reporters who want to avoid transgressions to stop writing [on] topics that are racially or politically troublesome.''

How true. Unfortunately, the journey from reporting on sensitive subjects to distorting them also is short. Every time someone says they don't care what people want to be called, they are telling those people they don't count. For years major media reported news about women and minorities as if they didn't care whom they offended.

In my young reporting days in Chicago about 20 years ago, I was warned away from using ''paddy wagon.'' It was offensive to the Irish, an editor said. Not to any Irish I knew. Still, I avoided the term, and I don't think my copy suffered for it.

Even so, we must avoid letting the pendulum swing too far in the sensitivity direction, or the bland will be leading the bland. Some of the words on the Times' list, for example, should have been edited out and may yet be. Worrying too much about ''deaf,'' ''gyp,'' ''welsh,'' ''handicapped,'' ''crazy'' and ''normal'' could drive normal reporters crazy.

Rules are treacherous because standards are always changing, sometimes faster than even the affected groups can keep up. I'm old enough to remember when people of my race were called ''colored people.'' Now we're called ''people of color.'' In between, we've been ''Negro,'' ''black'' and ''African- American.''

Small wonder, then, that sometimes I am asked outright which I prefer. It's nice to be asked.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

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