Can a language be biased/oppressive/racist?
I know that right off the bat some people will take issue with the question this title suggests. They’ll say, “No. A language can’t be inherently racist or anything else other than a method of communication. It is neutral. Words don’t hurt people. People hurt people.” And to some degree, I would be willing to concede if every culture on earth all spoke the same language from the beginning of time. However, this is not the case. Therefore, it is worth considering that every system of language was designed as a “COMMUNICATION TOOL” meant to convey the values of the leadership of that community in order to survive and in many cases guide the community into a future that specifically served that leadership. But, this is not something that we are taught. So, many of us are quite unconscious about the degree to which our worldview is shaped by the language most accessible to us.
Think of it like you would a “programming language” for computer and software applications. The application is always limited to the coding unless it’s in the hands of a programmer. Otherwise, users of the applications cannot use the app for anything other than what it was originally designed for–even if they want to. Some people might resent the idea that they could be “programmed” by their language. But at the risk of unintentionally offending them more, I would say that chances are high that people who’d have a difficulty with this consideration are monolingual and that that language is very likely English and they somehow benefit from how the program is running.
When I was studying Mandarin at The Defense Language Institute in Monterey, CA, I did a project where I presented to my Laoshimen 老师们 (Teachers) the idea that a person’s ability to express their values is limited by the language with which they attempt to articulate those values. In other words, a person, as well as the larger culture of which they are a part, is limited in their ascension to the degree of their language dependency. This is why one of the first things an oppressive culture does is suppress the use of the native language of those they intend to subjugate. What happens over time then is that even when people from the oppressed group “master” the language of the oppressing group, the very language itself does not facilitate the oppressed group being able to sufficiently give words to the expression of their desire for liberation from the systems of the oppressor. Essentially, the two groups use the same words but still don’t “speak the same language”.*
I’m not racist. But my language is.
Now before anyone gets confused by what I’m about to say, let me state at the onset that my intent here is not to defend Roseanne Barr or make excuses for the statements she made recently. However, for education and edification purposes, I have decided to make an attempt at trying to explain from a linguistic perspective, why I believe, people with her mindset can make statements that, for many are clearly racist, and yet she can still not experience herself as such.
Part of the reason I’m doing this is because, as I see it, we all miss out if we get nothing out of such a high profile national lesson learning opportunity except a chance to further polarize ourselves around the question of whether or not, Roseanne and a large contingent of her supporters are racist. Of course, as an individual, I would say that, like our President, she is on the racist spectrum. But also, like DJT, she claims that she doesn’t see it that way. And personally, I think that this self perception, on Roseanne’s part and other racists who “don’t see myself as being racist” is worth exploring for more than just mining it for laughs and condemnation.
Ultimately, whether she realized it or not when she did it, it is clear now that Roseanne put a whole lot at risk with that tweet and her subsequent double, triple, and quadruple downing, ad infinitum. People don’t just do something this harmful to themselves, their career, and so many others for no reason. And for those of us who bear witness to this obvious psychological fiasco to settle for easy answers such as “It’s plain old racism”–even if true–is too basic and unenlightening. And at its worst, undermines much potential societal progress that could be made if we viewed this as the learning opportunity that it is.
On What Authority Do I Make My Claims
The statements that I am about to offer are established on a foundation that is both personal and observational. And while there are very few subjects in the world that I would declare myself uniquely qualified to discuss, this is one of them.
On a personal level, I grew up around many “Roseanne Barrs” in the South–largely while in Mississippi. These were people who can have you over for dinner, go fishing with you, and even invite you hunting and then without a second thought say things like, “I don’t have a problem with black people, but I don’t like niggers,” with a straight face and then be shocked when they’re told that the fact that they even think that is okay to say is racist. But from a linguistic perspective, they wouldn’t consider that statement racist. After all, (from their perspective) they just said they don’t have a problem with those they qualify as “black people. In fact, to prove that they aren’t racist, some of them will even say things like they view those who they consider “poor white trash” as “worse than niggers”. So obviously they can’t be racist.**
Of course, some people may find it hard to believe that people would say anything like this or make these kinds of distinctions, but these are things I’ve actually heard from folk. And I can tell you that they said these things with the utmost sincerity and actually were hurt that their words didn’t hit their intended mark. But as I’ll show, they’re also actually trapped by the human tendency to take their understanding of language for granted.
As a black person with a multicultural background who grew up with access to more than one language and having worked in the language analyst field for three years, with yet another language, I have come to humbly respect the many nuances of linguistics and how they determine the understanding of what people think they’ve communicated and how it is actually received. And what has become clear to me is that, in short, culturally crafted racists and those on the receiving end of the effects of institutional racism do not use language the same way.*** And it is for this reason, among others, that many people can say racist things and not realize that it could be perceived that way and partially why people who are linguistically calibrated differently will often listen for threats when they are geographically located in a context that has held historic animosity toward them. What follows are some conditions that support my position that much of our challenges with race and other aspects of divisiveness could benefit from some linguistic understanding:
- The person making the racist statement does not get to determine the degree to which someone from the targeted group is offended by the statement.
- If the language that the offending statement is expressed in is the dominant tongue of the offender, then they will tend to take for granted that their use of language is the “right” method of interpreting their statement and consequently will discount any other interpretations no matter how harmful to the recipient.
- There is no accessible formulaic linguistic expression within the language of the oppressive culture that will provide sufficient articulation of the oppressed’s vision for liberation. In other words, if you limit your expression of liberation to the language used to bind you, it will always imprison an aspect of your development. And that is frustrating and breeds resentment that is often unconscious and therefore rarely relayable.
So what does that say about people like Roseanne or any of us for that matter who hurt others with our language? Well, to some degree, I’m saying that, without deep intentionality as to how we approach it, the American linguistic construct is ripe for offense on the part of the historically oppressed and lack of empathy on the part of those who identify with the oppressing class. For this reason, I am proposing that some people like Roseanne, can unconsciously express racist sentiments without fully understanding the impact of how what they say may have an extremely adverse effect on other people. And this is simply because the language itself was cultivated in a cultural empire that valued the subjugation and stratification of people for the greater benefit of a perceived upper class. Therefore, the language and its most agreed upon usage conforms most easily to these values.
She’s Still Responsible
That being said, my theory does not absolve Roseanne or other unconscious racists from any accountability when their words do harm. Especially when one has a significant platform, I believe that the person who has been trusted with a “voice” has a responsibility to be discerning in what they project into the larger cultural narrative. For this reason, I have nearly 200 unposted blogs. Many of which were written immediately after I encountered something that angered me. And while I’m certain that some of those writings would have excited some people, I know that it would not have been mutually edifying for all who might encounter it. So, as a person who has been trusted by some to give deep thought into what I share, I, as much as possible, consider what impact my words might have on the few people who might take me seriously. As a person who makes her living by using words to shape culture, Roseanne should have as well.
Unfortunately, Roseanne, like too many of us, seems to choose living as a victim or an effect of her culture when she makes a mistake, but wants the benefits of being a cultural shaper when it makes her money. I am not saying this to condemn her. This too is an aspect of the toxicity of our culture. There are few who wouldn’t do the same thing in her situation. But the fact is that we all live in a system of checks and balances. As the old axiom says, “To whom much is given, much is required.” And while I am choosing not to get into the cosmic implications of this saying, I will say that I’ve witnessed that it is equally true that, “Of whom much is required, much is given.” To this I add the caveat, “So that they can responsibly do what they’re called to do.”
Why Trying to Share This is Worth the Struggle
As I’ve hopefully made clear, as a person from the “margins” English is limited in expressing my personal vision for the soul liberation of myself and all peoples. In fact, it even binds up allies. But, because of the depths of my experience with people from many cultures, my own linguistic training, and having had the very real liberating experience of coming into contact with buried aspects of myself through being in the land and speaking the language of my ancestors, I feel an impulse to speak into the contentions I witness in this increasingly polarized nation.
Try as some of us might, this “ussing and themming” that far too many of us are content with will ultimately fail and every tree that sprang forth out of this illusion will dry up at the roots. And I’m not just talking about on a local scale. Any institution that is built on the sandy foundation of division will, in time, fall into the metaphorical sea of forgetfulness and be lost to the very realm of being. That means the days of every ism are numbered. Racism, sexism, ageism will dissolve. It is inevitable.
On a soul level people who think like Roseanne and the President know this. That is why there is so much anxiety and betrayal around them. But what many of us who believe that we’d be cheering the end of these systems don’t understand is that even our own liberation is inextricably tied to these very same people we are so eager to castigate.
That’s why the most powerful words spoken in the cause of universal liberation are still, “Forgive them for they know not what they do.” What we must come to embrace is the level of consciousness that can hold the seeming paradox of accountability that emerges from absolute forgiveness. But that’s for another post.
Until then, I invite you to consider some of these things you can do to loosen some of the constrictions placed on you by your relationship to the language you were reared to speak.
- Try learning another language. Especially if you come from the group that is considered the “owner” of the language most spoken in the land. The benefit of this is increased sympathy for people who either struggle with learning English or use the language “imaginatively” i.e. use words in ways that aren’t consistent with the social norm.
- Watch films or listen to music from other cultures in their language. It offers similar benefits as above, along with offering a heightened sense of humility that comes with the awareness that there are people who are completely proficient in an expression that you know nothing about.
- Travel to places with a different language and script and walk around without the comfort of an English speaking guide. This is a practice in vulnerability that is invaluable.
- Meditate on the awareness that another group’s language and culture is not a inaccurate representation of your own. Not understanding this is a key to much of the disrespect and confusion that is pervasive in our world.
These are just a few suggestions that I’ve used as mindfulness practices to keep myself aware that I have a responsibility to explore with some depth both what I say and how what I say affects others. Because in many ways, we speak our worlds into being.
*I earned an A on this project that was presented to several Chinese teachers who all agreed that to some degree they were trapped by their language and that learning other languages allowed them to consider concepts that they simply “could not say in Chinese.” One professor did joke me about thinking too much and from then on started to call me “The Monk”. He also suggested that I might want to live in a monastery because not too many people would be interested in thinking that deeply about what they say.
**Yes, I know the Chris Rock skit that makes a distinction between “black people and niggaz”. But, as I’ve tried to express, from a linguistic perspective, Mr. Rock saying this is associatively and qualitatively different than if someone like the people I mentioned said it.
***A culturally crafted racist is someone who accepts the status quo under the assumption that they aren’t complicit in a system that they benefit from because they didn’t create the system. They were just passively born into it.