Paul R. Lehman, Race language in America needs change

July 24, 2010 at 1:07 pm | Posted in American Racism | 3 Comments
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                   America needs to stop and take an accounting of itself in the wake of President Obama’s election. What on the surface seemed like a country coming together as of lately seems like a country more divided than ever. The claims of progress in our democratic society seem to be unfounded in light of the barrage of negativisms hurled towards and at Obama. Americans and Obama made history when they elected him as president. Something else happened as well, a calling up of ethnic hate and fear that had been laying semi dormant for a while. With Obama as the leader of the country, the fear and hate began to rise to the surface because people who did not want Obama and the country to succeed felt an urgency to stop him at all cost.

                One of the primary changes America needs to make involves language. As human being we have the gift of language that helps us to identify and choose good from bad, right from wrong. When we use language for negative reasons, we should not be surprised to get negative results. When Americans believed that people were identified as belonging to a race by the color of their skin, the word race seemed appropriate. The derivatives of race such as racial, racist, and racism were used to identify a specific aspect of race. Today, Americans know that the belief of race by skin color is not valid, so the obvious actions would be to discontinue the use of the word race and its associated words. Therein lies the problem. Race was used as the bases from bigotry, bias, discrimination, and prejudice. Unfortunately, race is still the bases today for much of the fear and hatred surrounding politics on every level of government.

                Let us be clear on the definition of the word racism; The American Heritage Dictionary defines it as “The notion that one’s own ethnic stock is superior.” In America, the ethnic group to hold and promote that notion has been the European Americans. The very nature of the words bigotry, bias, discrimination, and prejudice informs us that any and all humans can and usually do possess a degree of these feelings. But each of these terms is different from racism or racist because they represent a group of like-minded people. So, when the word racist or racism is directed towards, for example, an African American or Asian American, no bases exist in America to validate the claim. What usually is meant in reference to calling non European Americans racist is one of the other terms. The language of race or racism does not fit.

                The negative language used by some members of the Right in America has created and promoted the feelings of fear and hate directed especially at Obama and his administration. In an effort to try and justify their notion of superiority, they focus their attention of Obama or African Americans as the enemy. Just what is the enemy doing? Absolutely nothing, but that is beside the point. They use the fear and hatred language to stir-up the European Americans who are led to believe that they are losing or giving up something important to non-European Americans, but especially to African Americans. If these Obama critics find anyone even remotely associated with Obama and his administration that can be used as a symbol of racism, that person is exploited because he or she helps to make their case for being bias.

                If we reflect on Obama’s recent past, we have little difficulty remembering incidents that were used to paint a picture of him showing preference to some African American individual or group and using that as proof of his being bias against European Americans. The most recent victim of this type of negative action is Ms. Shirley Sherrod. She gave a speech at an NAACP meeting that underscored her belief in helping poor people, regardless of their color. In explaining her epiphany, she used language that was later taken out of context to try and show her to be a bigot. Because of the altered language being broadcast over the airways, her boss heard about the claims of racism via the broadcast, but not the circumstances surrounding it and rushed to judgment, not wanting to be seen as condoning biased behavior, and forced her to resign. Once the full story of her speech and activity was made known, she was completely exonerated and offered a new position. President Obama called her personally and apologized to her and offered her a new position, since she was forced to resign from the previous one. What did not follow was an apology and explanation from the media that created the first mistake of labeling her a racist. In her speech, Ms. Sherrod used the word black and white to describe African Americans and European Americans. The use of the first terms feed directly into the plans of biased Americans. The language matters where race is of concern.

                Language in and of itself cannot and will not eliminate bigotry, prejudice, discrimination and the like, but it can help to correct a wrong and set a course in the right direction. Since race is still a major problem in America we can use language to help us resolve it. For example, the word bastard has a denotation and a connotation. When the denotation is used the meaning is clear and effective; however, when the connotation is used, the intent is negative. So, regardless of the word preceding bastard, the connotation remains—nice bastard, good bastard, Christian bastard, etc. The word race acts the same way by suggesting that other human races exists. The words black and white are used with the intent ion of race following them. Rational human beings know when language is right or wrong, good or bad.

Once we begin to use the appropriate language regarding ethnicity, we will lose the issue that continues to keep the nation divided– race. Yes, by changing the language of race some Americans will lose their sense of privilege and superiority, but, hopefully, they will gain membership in a larger group of patriotic, God-fearing, freedom-loving, fair-minded Americans who want to see America realize it full positive potential. Changing the language will not automatically change a person’s perspective. Bigotry, biases, prejudice, and discrimination will continue to exit, but from individuals, not groups called racists. If we persist in maintaining the negative, fear and hate-creating syndrome, we will only prolong the time when reason can step forth and take its rightful place in the hearts and minds of those citizens who really love this great country. Reason will prevail eventually; it will just take more time to overcome the ignorance that continues to try and block it.

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  1. I find the American Heritage Dictionary definition of racism interesting…and problematic. “The notion that one’s own ethnic stock is superior.” At first I am glad that it makes one corrective by changing reference from ‘race’ to ‘ethnicity’. The problem with ‘race’ as I believe you have pointed out is that it refers to an artificial description of people based on physical characteristics — and supported by false pseudo-scientific observations. As you have pointed out, there is only one ‘race’, the human one. Ethnicity refers to a more complex mix of geographical, cultural and linguistic factors.

    However, by saying ‘ethnic STOCK’ they fall back into the same trap. ‘Stock’ denotes breeding, again referring to physical characteristics that can be bred– the goal being to keep the more preferred ones. Language does make a difference.

    A defiinition of racicsm I have heard and prefer is “prejudice plus privilege” or even “prejudice plus power.” Your point still remains, though, regardless of nuances of the definition of racisim — in America everyone can be a bigot, but only European Americans can be called ‘racist.’ And of course ‘racism’ is now such a toxic word, that your promotion to replace it with ‘bigotry’ or ‘bias’ makes a lot of sense.

    • When I read the dictionary listing for racism, as you noted, the word ‘stock’ jumped out at me. Not wanting to start a new blog focusing on that issue, I just made a mental note to come back to it at a later date. I enjoyed and appreciated your comments and contribution to the discussion.

  2. It seems so simple. But the myth of race has been so deeply engrained in our psyche people simply don’t see themselves in any other way. Please continue your campaign as education and persistence is the only way to break this cycle.


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