Saturday, January 22, 2011

Racist Language

Our discussion on Tuesday about whether or not Bernier was using positive or normative language in his description of the various “races” got me thinking about language in general and how the conceptions of words can change over time. For Bernier, using animalistic descriptions of human beings from East Asia may have been acceptable at the time (I’m not saying if it was accepted in his time, but that it might have been), but clearly this language is seen as racist today. What this made me realize was that if in fact Bernier’s comments were completely legitimate during his time then everyone who read this would be subject to this racist language, and whether they adopt it or not, they still may develop some sort of latent racism. This racism would come from the distinct possibility that a 17th century reader’s only image of “the other” is that which Bernier provides. Not knowing any difference to this view would cause the reader to develop incorrect understanding and associate negative language with these groups.

Now this is not to say that Bernier’s article alone would have sparked a snowball effect of people basically passing racism on to each other; however, I think that it serves as an example of how unconsciously destructive language can inadvertently transfer the same initial biases that produced that language to another individual. This relates to a topic discussed in detail in “the Sociology of Violence and Peacemaking” class, where we tried to uncover the core of violence. What we determined was that language and a lack of understanding of the other cause violence. When “the other” is not fully understood, and language is constructed about these people, then the misunderstanding is passed on to any receiver of said language.

With this idea of language as problematic and violent, there is also the question about how we are currently positioned today. Is the language that we use violent and packed with assumptions about “the other”? I feel like we often like to think that we are not racist, but most of us probably have unconscious racist tendencies or use of language simply because we were brought up in a world that has been shaped by racism for at least the past 300-400 years (if not more). So how do we uncover these tendencies? How do we better our own understanding of “the other” and recognize faults in our language? I believe part of the answer to this comes through reading, listening, and truly trying to understand “the other” and their situation. Also, by discussing our ideas with our class and talking about the “hard stuff,” the topics that people shy away from because they feel uncomfortable, we may begin to uncover biases we were unaware we had. These biases do not make us a bad person. At the same time, simply uncovering them does not make us perfect either; however, it does make us more aware, and positions us to better understand race, “the other,” and ourselves.


  1. I really like the way you connect language, race and violence; one of the reasons why studying race is so important is exactly because race as a concept so powerfully informs the language of our societies, which in turn is used as either a weapon itself, or as justification for violence. Colonial discourses, part of the landscape surrounding authors such as Bernier, Kant and Herder, in large part aimed to justify European expansionism and exploitation of non-European peoples by creating a language of racial and cultural difference. Thus producing a language of race, and in tandem a specific understanding of colonized peoples, not only justified violence, but was (and is ) a type of violence in itself. The debate about the effect of violent political rhetoric on violent behavior following the Arizona shootings a couple of weeks ago is a really interesting extension of some of the things you're talking about here. Although that debate is not, from what I can tell, especially interested in race, it begs the question of the relationship between language and violence. All of this is to say, cool post!

  2. Great point about the explanation of Europe; I touched on that in another comment as well and can't agree more. Jack, I would like to say that I'm glad you addressed this idea that language is a more powerful tool then many people recognize. The most difficult part of talking about race is that our language is not sculpted in a way to even permit us to engage every aspect with ease. Or perhaps we have the means, but the creation of race has stripped us of the need to use more regionally specific vocabulary. We have reduced the people of the world to white, black, Asian, Indian, Arab, and a few others. While these are overly generalized, they would be fine to use had they not acquired untrue connotations over the last four centuries (or in some cases persisted the connotations). What I'm trying to say is that we engaged in a dialogue about race using the words of our language that have acquired negative stereotypes. The words available to us often shape the bounds of our discussion and the tone. It is our challenge in this class to fight through this, to hear 'Asian' or 'black' or 'white' and attempt to grasp that it is not being used in the way we have heard it our entire lives or read about in our readings, but in a way that opens the floor to civil discussion. Words carry with them feelings and associations; it's our job to realize this and continue the dialogue. All this is much easier said then done, of course, and is one the reasons that we, whites especially, find ourselves struggling to talk about race and explore the complex mechanisms that have constructed a privileged white society (privilege being a whole new topic of discussion).

  3. Jack I think that your point about language is great and a very necessary point to bring to the attention of the class. I think it is also important to point out that in Bernier's time the language that is used in his piece has no known incorrect understanding because there was no basis of correct and incorrect, just what was and wasn't known. Correctness comes with knowledge and because their knowledge during Bernier's time was limited, it cannot be said that it was incorrect knowledge, and therefore language. Also by declaring that we are talking about the "other" it is inherently understood that there are assumptions connected to that idea because it is understood to be a variant from the "norm". I think this is the most important connecting point between the idea of race, the "other", and language. Trent makes a good point when saying that it is our responsibility to hear a word such as "white", "black", "hispanic", "asian", or "african" and not make assumptions. But then I would argue that this goes against our nature as humans. When someone says a word, whether it be dog, hat, or teacher each individual person has many attributions to that word, and most time they vary in specifics. Therefore I think it is more important for people to try and focus on when they hear a word or read a word that they acknowledge their assumptions and try and set them aside and let the surrounding context of the word help to try and create a basis for how the word was being used according to the speaker or author. By this I do not mean that every time we use "white" or "black" or "hispanic" or "asian" as a descriptor we pause the conversations to clarify exactly what we mean by using that word, but rather the party or parties that we are in conversation with work to not make assumptions or associations.

  4. I think that language inherently shapes a culture, even now. Racial slurs were crafted from words such as "niggardly", meaning cheap or miserly, or "squaw", which originally just meant "young woman". Our society has dissected these words in order to assign hatred to groups of people. To use color as a physical descriptor and to distinguish someone based on race seems natural but may subconsciously set them apart. However, I don't think using race as an objective adjective is inherently racist. I believe that its interpretation lies directly with the individual -- we are capable of a lot of hate and using language in order to express it.

  5. Great post! I think the best way to learn more about the other is experience. While we can read about people different from ourselves for our entire life, experience is always the best teacher. Being in a class with students different from me , always reaffirms that all white people aren't naive and blind to reality although some are. I'm sure its vice versa for white kids in a class with educated blacks. It reminds them that all black people are not like the black people you see on music videos. Although I think experience is the best teacher... being knowledgeable about the other on an academic stance is also important. I try to become a more aware social being everyday in social environments.


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