Race Language Pt 1: defining terms

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Race can’t be boiled down to differences in language.  Obviously it’s a complex social phenomenon that must take into consideration history, economics, culture, legal strictures, identity, and more.  In fact trying to elucidate all the factors that go into race, and racism would be cumbersome and I’m not qualified.  I’m not even sure it’s at all possible.  I hope to learn and grow as I move forward, but at the moment I would simply do disservice to those better qualified to educate.  It’s ironic perhaps that those best suited to expounding on this nuanced race issues are comedians.  But comedians can only bring catharsis.  Their role in achieving permanent dialogue is limited. I, as a white person, certainly can’t use the same language as a Black comedian.  I wouldn’t even if I wanted and no one wants that. Even though race can’t be boiled down to difference in language, I believe we can use differences in language as a  proxy for the broader discussion of issues affecting race.

For simplicity’s sake I’m going to divide the population of the United States into four groups.  Underprivileged, Allies, Non-allies, and Hostiles.  Hostiles are straightforward enough.  They’re overt bigots, they go around in white sheets telling people they’re bigots. They picket funerals and do their level best to ruin everyone’s day.  They have no useful role in the discussion, other than to highlight what can go wrong, and I don’t know how to help them other than to send them to serious intensive deprogramming therapy.

Underprivileged are also a category that’s easy to describe.  They’re anyone who has suffered from a system that is inherently unequal.  There are a lot of different kinds of privilege and a lot of different ways someone might fit into that kind of category.  In fact, a majority of individuals will fit into in some way and to a greater or lesser degree.

Allies are people with privilege, know they’re privileged and want to help.  I’m placing people whose efforts are ineffective or even counterproductive in this group (I recognize that I may fall into this second category.  If so I’ll try and do better.  We’re all learning).

Non-Allies, are the “I’m friends with black people”/”I don’t see race” type of people.  They don’t know or don’t believe they are privileged, or that there even is such a thing as privilege, and think that attempts fixing inequality or even talking about it merely perpetuates that inequality.

Each group has a specific language that they’re using, and there are few individuals, in my opinion, that can really translate between groups, because language is a function of common experience.  Allies are only allies because they have had experiences in common with under-privileged groups.  A quick example, a man living with a woman might gain some appreciation for the difficulties and expense in maintaining an attractive hairstyle.  Obviously this is a trivial example, but I hope it’s demonstrative of what I mean.  White protesters in Ferguson are getting a small taste of what it means to be on the receiving end of police brutality.  I realize that in real life nothing is ever so simple that they can fit into four easy to define categories.  For example, there are plenty of people who will fit into both the ally and underprivileged category.  In fact, there are plenty of people that will fit into all four categories simultaneously.  My point is not to confine individuals into predetermined stereotypes based on my own choosing, but rather to define words in a useful way.  In the next blog I’ll talk more about how I see different groups using language differently.


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