Paul R. Lehman, Everyday bigotry and the language of social control

August 25, 2018 at 1:18 pm | Posted in African American, American Bigotry, American history, Bigotry in America, black inferiority, blacks, Civil Right's Act 1964, Congress, education, equality, ethnic stereotypes, Ethnicity in America, European American, European Americans, fairness, Hair, identity, justice, language, lower class, Media and Race, minorities, minority, political power, politicians, Prejudice, President Obama, Race in America, racism, skin color, skin complexion, Slavery, whites | Leave a comment
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Everyday bigotry is basically a normal day in America. What makes it normal is that it is part of the fabric of American society that hides beneath the veneer of the idea of democracy. Social conditioning is a process that occurs when someone is born into a culture or adopts a culture and experiences that culture on a daily basis. The characteristics of that culture are acquired through living with and among the people in that society. The standards and values, customs and practices that are part of that society are not usually questioned or challenged by the people, but accepted as being correct and normal. So, when the system of Anglo-Saxon (European American) supremacy was instituted into society using language that identified two major races, black and white, with white as superior and black as inferior, no one questioned or challenged it. The Africans could not challenge the biased concept because they were powerless; the European Americans did not challenge it because they invented it. The power and control of society was derived through the language the people used and trusted.

The power and control of society through language can be demonstrated in the concept of physical beauty. The European Americans established themselves and their physical qualities as representative of the normal human being. In addition to making themselves the model of humanity, they also placed the highest social value on their features, especially their skin complexion. Therefore, anyone that looked like the European American was viewed as valued more than the people of color, especially the African Americans that did not look European. The slave masters and owners began early in the system of slavery to exploit the European physical features and the degree of so-called European (white) blood reported in the slaves as a profit builder. What they did was give names to slaves supposedly having degrees of European blood, names to underscore that degree. So, for example, if a slave was said to have a European American father and an African mother, he or she would be called a mulatto; this designation would allow the slave seller to ask more money for the slave over one with no or less European American blood; the greater the percentage of European blood, the higher the slave’s value.

What this practice did in addition to bringing in more money to the slave owner was to give the slaves with a degree of European American blood a sense of being valued over the slaves without noticeable European American blood. The reality was that regardless the amount of European American blood the slaves had, they were still slaves. In addition, the language told the African American slaves that they were ugly, black and dirty; that their hair was bad because it was kinky, nappy, curly and short. Possessing these physical characteristics, the African slaves knew that being beautiful was impossible for them. However, after slavery, some African Americans believed that acquiring some of the features of the European American might increase their social value. The language as a tool had convinced them to accept the European American standard of beauty as part of a social value system.

One of the wealthiest women in America in the late 1800’s was Madam C. J. Walker who happened to be an African American. Although she made many significant contributions to African American causes during her lifetime, the fact was that she acquired her wealth by exploiting the self-denigration of many men and women of color who wanted to improve their appearance. Even today we see primarily women of color whose natural hair color is dark brown or black with blond hair or undergoing cosmetic surgery on their eyes, noses and mouth in an effort to approximate the European American look of beauty. This attention to physical appearance is due to the influence of the language that causes some Americans of color to question their sense of self and their concept of beauty.

Although the Black Power movement focused on changing the stigma associated with the word black, one of the important and consequential changes to occur was the African Americans view of self and a challenge to the European American standard of beauty. Because they could see themselves as beautiful in the natural, they became free to express that freedom in any way they desired. One result of African Americans’  freedom of expression of their natural beauty was the European Americans’ efforts to adopt aspects of it.

What Americans should understand is that the language we use if not challenged will continue to control us. The language control manifests itself in the actions and reactions of European Americans as well as African Americans. For example, when the word minorities is used by European Americans it is not defined, but has inferred connotations.  So, who are the minorities referred to in the usage of the word? Americans generally assume that the word refers to all ethnic groups of color that reflect a smaller population than European Americans.  Another suggestion that is inferred in the use of the word minorities is the deference to a majority population as being superior, not necessarily numerically, but in influence and power. How will the word be interpreted when the European Americans numerically becomes the numerical minority in the foreseeable future? Will they still be referred to as the majority because of their power and influence? In any event, because the word is not defined, the meaning is never concrete and often seen as derogatory.

With respect to language being viewed as derogatory, President Barack Obama during his last days in office signed into law H.R. 4238 stating that the federal government will no longer use the terms Negro, Oriental, and Minorities in federal writing. The passing of this measure was a rare show of bipartisan  support by the House of Representatives and the Senate. The fact that America is constantly changing demographically demands that we pay attention to how the language is used as a tool for social control as well for as liberation. Just like our demographics change, so does our language with new words coming into usage while some words no longer serve a useful purpose because they are not accurate and are no longer socially acceptable.

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