Paul R. Lehman, Chris Matthews and Oprah’s Choice of words

January 29, 2010 at 5:46 pm | Posted in Ethnicity in America | 6 Comments
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What will it take for people in positions of power and influence to realize that no matter how much they do to promote American unity, they are the chief perpetrators of promoting racism and separation? For example, Chris Matthews is constantly refering to himself as a white man; Oprah frequently refers to herself as a black woman. So, what is wrong with that? Are they not telling the truth? Yes and no. Yes, they are telling the truth as they see it, and no, they are stuck in a race box. Throughout the media prominent people with well-meaning thoughts accept, endorse, and promote racism and separateness.

                The problem involves all Americans because we are all affected and influenced by the experience. The words ‘white’ and ‘black’ are like bright red lights that call attention to themselves. Why? Because of the stigma that is associated with them—white equals superiority and privilege, black equals inferiority and baseness. Like the word ‘race,’ white and black unites and separates simultaneously. The mere use of these words in usual conversation underscores acceptance of them. If we were to examine the reactions of people hearing the words, we would recognize that the people who identify themselves with the words are alerted to the commonality as well as the difference represented in them. We have accepted as fact the idea of races to the point that we ignore the fact that we ONE.

                Chris and Oprah mean no harm, but they are adding to the problem when they continue to use those words black and white. What is wrong with the words African American and European American? These words, at least, unite all Americans into the same family of humans. Racism cannot exist if we all belong to the same race. Sure we all have differences, but those differences are superficial within the human family, not outside of it.

                When we become aware of a problem, then we can strive to eliminate it. We need to begin educating ourselves and each other that words have consequences. What we thought was harmless can in fact be very harmful when used without forethought. Chris and Oprah are prominent and influential people who reach millions of people daily; they need to know and understand the impact of their choice of words. They would not yell Fire in a crowed theater, so why continue to use the words black and white, since they also cause alarm. Obviously, Chris and Oprah are not the only people who do this, they are used here as representatives of media personalities. Nonetheless, if the problem is to be addressed, part of the solutions must begin somewhere, so, why not with them?

                American prides itself in being a nation of diversity, because we find strength in diversity. We also find strength as well as freedom in truth. As a people we cannot simply say we embrace diversity and then act contrary to what we say. The adage ‘ways and actions speak louder than word,’ can also apply to our use of words.

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  1. I assume your latest entry was prompted by Matthews’ latest foot-in-mouth. If you didn’t see the Daily Show segment about the State of the Union address, I pasted a link to it below. I agree whole-heartedly, Matthews and Winfrey seem to do what they can to keep the “race” label alive as a distinction that separates us into different sub-categories of human beings. Be sure to watch through to the end to see Wyatt Cenac’s closing satire. The Chris Matthews of the world do more to further the divide that exists in this country than bring everyone closer together. And the extremes on the left and right, Republican and Democrat, thrive on stupid comments like Matthews’ latest.

    http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/entertainment/zontv/2010/01/daily_show_has_the_last_best_w.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+entertainment_tv_blog+(Z+on+TV)

  2. While I agree with the suggestions here, I think there are some reasons “African American” and “European American” will not come into universal usage. First, as a journalist, I know why the Associated
    Press Stylebook endorses “black.” Can you imagine the nightmare it would be to try to fit “African American” into a one-column headline? Even with a multiple-column headline, not much could be written other than “African American.” Also, “black” and “white” are so convenient for descriptions in crime stories and indeed in many other news media stories. Even in everyday conversation, people are looking for abbreviations. Thus, it’s “mac and cheese,” “IHOP,” “e-mail,” “ED,” “BO,” “cop,” “MP,” … Presidents with long names become FDR, JFK, Ike…

    • Dennie,

      While your comments are well-taken, African Americans did not select the words black and negro in which to identify themselves. The words were chosen for them and therefore carry negative connotations. What the media does about the problem of spacing does not eliminate the lack of integrity these words convey.

      • I can see the case for abbreviations, but any headline that needs to indentify an ethnic group in the headline should make the space to say it correctly — as it is already drawing attention to a distinction for a reason, one that comes with tensions and baggage. Maybe we could all get used to some new abbreviations: “AfrAm Caucus Meets” “New EuroAm Health Stats Reveal Gap” or some such thing. People will roll their eyes and complain about political correctness, but it’s worth it. Words make a difference.

  3. It seems that if enough people persistently use a word or phrase to identify themselves, eventually others take the hint and use it too. The word “negro” was used widely into the 1970s. In 1966 SNCC called for “black power,” but African Americans were hesitant to use “black” to define themselves. By 1971, the media and prominent politicians had stopped using “negro.” Maybe the same thing will happen with “black,” eventually.

  4. According to the United States Bureau of Census the word African American does not exist. The 2010 Census data gathering information form shows Negro as the race to mark to show the racial idenity of Black people in the United States “African American” is not listed on the the form. How or will President Obama be able to complete the U. S. Census form?


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