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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Paul R. Lehman, Comments about Gabby Douglas’s hair are out of bounds

August 5, 2012 at 5:26 pm | Posted in African American hair, Disrespect, fairness, Gabby Douglas, Hair, minority, Olympics | 2 Comments
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America watched in amazement as Gabby Douglas displayed her Olympic Gold talent and skills to win the title of the best female gymnast in the world. At the age of sixteen she has achieved something that is reserved for the most exceptional athletes on the planet—an Olympic Gold medal.  All who watched her performances knew they were witnessing greatness. While most people were happy to see the young American female earn her medal, some individuals thought that Gabby’s hair was more important in the accomplishment she had just experienced. Those individuals who tweeted comments about Gabby’s hair were ignorant, insensitive, and asinine.

Athletes are dedicated and driven individuals who focus on perfecting their skills while developing their talents. Unless their physical appearance relative to fashion is a necessary aspect of their training, they concentrate on more important things. Depending on the sport or activity, the athletes’ hair fashion is not of primary concern, unless it gets in the way of the performance. Otherwise, most of the athletes’ concern is on perfecting their skills. With respect to Gabby’s hair style, we can assume that she wore it in a manner that allowed her to complete her programs with the least bit of distractions. Those people who made comments about Gabby’s hair were ignorant of the fact that gymnasts like Gabby, as well as other athletes, come into contact with water and perspiration on a daily basis. Most women know what moisture on the hair does to it as far as fashion goes that why many prefer to keep it short and manageable. If those people writing comments about Gabby’s hair knew what her training regimen was they probably would not have made those comments. But to some people, ignorance is bliss.

Regardless of the ignorance of some people regarding athletes and their hair, the comments were not in keeping with good taste or manners; in fact, they showed a gross insensitivity. The world had just witnessed a spectacular performance by a sixteen-year-old female gymnast and for some people, in praising her accomplishment they negate the praise by complaining about her hair style. We know that athletes are conditioned to manage their emotions so not to interfere with their performance, but unnecessary and insensitive comments about a beautiful young lady’s hair shows a total lack of class. What makes the hair comments even more insensitive is the lack of thought that could have a negative impact on a young female’s self image. If the hair comments were made to address the hair specifically, that is one concern that could be handled; however, if the hair comments were made with respect to Gabby’s over-all appearance, then they were totally despicable.  Most young people at or around the age of sixteen are experiencing an identity change, and any little element of self-doubt can have a great impact on how they see themselves. Fortunate, Gabby knows that she is both beautiful and talented.

At a time when we Americans should be celebrating the accomplishment of Gabby Douglas for  representing her country so well, we should also be mindful of the fact that negative comments about her should have no place in our hearts and mouths. We should be thankful for the devotion and sacrifice of this remarkable young lady in wanting to give America and the world her best efforts. So, for some people to praise her on one hand and criticize her hair on the other is just plain asinine.  A consequence experienced by people who make asinine comments is that the criticism they seek to place on others actually falls on them. They are seen as suffering from a character defect that prevents them from giving credit where it is due. One has to wonder what goes through the minds of people who cannot simply give credit and praise without including personal digs or what could be interpreted as insults. Gabby as well as the other Olympic athletes deserves our appreciation and support for their efforts in representing us and our country.

Chances are when we get a look at Gabby once the Olympic Games are over, and she is making the media rounds for her well-deserved honor, we will see a beautiful young lady whose personal appearance suits her environment. We are proud of Gabby for the challenges and triumphs she experienced in the face of many obstacles. Most of the people watching her perform probably paid little if any attention to her hair style, which is as it should have been. The only thing she should have heard from the people was “Go Gabby! You Go Girl!” And she did.

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