Not so black and white
How vocabulary and race relations are inextricably linked
September 15, 2014
Following the police shooting of Michael Brown, Ferguson, Missouri became a symbol of racism in America. Long-smoldering conversations about systematic racism were reignited in the violent days following Brown’s death, when rioters’ fires glowed through police tear gas.
While divergent narratives regarding the circumstances of Brown’s death remain uncertain, the one thing that is certain is a white police officer shot an unarmed black teenager. This truth made people shake their heads at the identifiable symptom of greater injustice. But it’s also important to examine how our actions contribute to the epidemic.
Remember the science toy from preschool – the one with dark iron shavings buried in white sand that you’d pull apart with a magnet? A quick glance down our hallways and into our classrooms reminds me of that box of separated iron and sand. The conversations we have, the words we use and how we interact are that red magnet pushed against the glass. Naperville North is not uniquely racist, but in order to challenge racism in our country, we have to start with our microcosm. Reimagining the way we think about certain areas in the school – particularly the commons – and how we interact with other races is one of the best ways we can combat racism.
Our community carries a significant amount of racial tension in a specific area of the building’s body: the commons. The commons, referred to by some as “The Jungle,” (problematic in and of itself, duh) has established an identity. I’ve heard it described as loud, overwhelming and an epicenter for fights in the building. This can be attributed to the fact that any concentration of teenagers can be loud, overwhelming and prone to fights. People, however, single out the commons, and succumb to stereotypes. Seemingly benign diagnoses like those above become destructive when they escalate to descriptors like “dangerous,” “criminal,” and “scary,” uglier words I’ve heard used in association with the commons. These labels become expectations of the people who hang out in the commons, who for whatever reason are predominantly black. The majority population profiles black students with limiting adjectives, which invites black students to fulfill the roles culturally expected of them.
Our vocabularies are also abundant with racial vestiges that limit black students. The N-word, in all its forms, and “ghetto” (the G-word?) are racially charged words that have crept into our vernacular. Despite the colloquial use of these words, both trace their ancestry to oppression and genocide. The use of the N-word is controversial: reclaiming it, stripping it of its power through casual use, and removing it from speech entirely are some suggestions for its fate. In some ways, it represents centuries of slavery in this country. People should think critically about the N-word and its implications before casually using it. Progress is difficult when both black and white students alike minimize what the word symbolizes – slavery, oppression – by tossing it around.
“Ghetto” is a similar offender. Ghettos were originally the areas in which Jews were restricted and segregated in Venice. In Germany during World War II, the Nazis also restricted Jews to ghettos. The Nazis then systematically exterminated six million Jews. Using this word in modern speech to mean characteristic of a slum inhabited by members of a minority group limited socially or economically establishes an eerie connection to genocide. Worse, using ghetto to describe elements of black culture or to mean inferior does not send an encouraging message.
It’s our responsibility then to examine our own behavior. A weapon against social injustice everywhere is examining the implications of our vocabularies. Stop using racially charged words casually: they are the ghosts of millions of dead and oppressed. Let’s make a pact, the both of us now. Let’s think about what we say and what it means. Some things are cut and dry: calling a place where black students hang out “The Jungle” is racist. Other words are nuanced and influenced by cultural dialect: the N-word for example. But when you decide to let a word roll off your tongue, think about who else in history has done the same. You just may be borrowing from the vocabulary of racists.