I’ve been reading the very good, but very uncomfortable to read book, “Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America.” It’s been a slow read for me, but from an historical perspective I am finally to the 60s, thus to when I was born. One paragraph struck me today because it is such an example of how language perpetuates ideas without our even being aware of it…the topic is language symbolism. Coincidentally I read of this very concept when reading a commentary on Mark’s gospel today. Both are food for thought for Sunday’s sermon. Here is the long quote:
Language symbolism and a conference on race and color in Copenhagen in 1965:
Scholars pointed out everyday phrases like “black sheep,” “blackballing,” and “blacklisting,” among others, that had long associated Blackness and negativity.
The language symbolism was no less striking in two new American identifiers: “minority” and “ghetto.” For centuries, racists had construed Black folk as minors to White majors, and that history could be easily loaded into their latest identifier of the supposed lesser peoples: minorities. The appellation only made sense as a numerical term, and as a numerical term, it only made sense indicating national population or power dynamics. But it quickly became a racial identifier of African Americans (and other non-Whites) – even in discussions that had nothing to do with national issues. It made no sense as another name for Black people, since most Black people lived, schooled, worked, socialized, and died in majority-Black spaces. The term only made sense from the viewpoint of Whites, who commonly related to Black people as the numerical minority in their majority-White spaces, and elite Blacks, who were more likely to exist as the numerical minority in majority-White spaces. And so, class racism – downgrading the lives of Black commoners in majority Black spaces – became wrapped up in the term “minority,” not unlike a term that psychologist Kenneth Clark had popularized after putting aside brown and light dolls.
In 1965, Clark published his seminal text, Dark Ghetto. The term “ghetto” was known as an identifier of the ruthlessly segregated Jewish communities in Nazi Germany. Though social scientists like Clark hoped the term would broadcast the ruthless segregation and poverty that urban Blacks faced, the word quickly assumed a racist life of its own. (364)
Interestingly (sadly) many whites are now afraid of becoming a numerical minority…maybe some of the angst is because of the idea (even if its subliminal) that minority equals “not good.”
I’m sure I’ll read about more but until then, I wonder how many other words are still in our lexicon?