I recently read Stamped, Racism, Antiracism and You by Reynolds and Kendi. The book discusses the historical struggles of Black individuals and the violence and resistance they faced as they demanded freedom from slavery and discrimination. There were several areas which resonated with me, but I was especially struck by how the authors shared the role of language symbolism. While explicit bias and discrimination is easily detected, several terms in the English language that can be construed as racist or promoting racism remain undetected and widely used. Examples include black sheep, black mail, blacklisting, black market, black mark, blackout, black eye and black magic. All these terms are associated with Blackness and negativity. This made me reflect upon other words in our English lexicon that might have racial overtones. Some words are also biased, but do not necessarily have negative connotations. Words such as white lie, white cloud, white flag, white paper and whitelist. While not every word that is associated with white is positive, there are far more positive associations with the color white than the color black.
Think about marriage. The bride wears a white dress. However, when attending a funeral, a darker shade is deemed more appropriate. This custom is also prevalent in many other cultures. I began to question the origins of this color preference and was not truly satisfied by any explanation except due to societal color biases or prejudice. A commonly accepted proposition is that white denotes purity and black denotes negativity. Perhaps, this explains why we select a particular color to denote a happy occasion or a sad one and provide some context to why the colonists thought that they were somehow superior to the African natives. Regardless, we must acknowledge and recognize our intrinsic or unconscious biases and how they might inadvertently create dichotomy or inequalities.
Language evolves with time and terminology might also be used to demonstrate superiority. Consider the term “master bedroom”? Why master? Is this an example of male dominance or an oblique reference to a master/slave relationship? It might be better to substitute primary bedroom instead of a description that might be construed as derogatory or racist. In fact, the Houston Association of Realtors, has now replaced the term master with primary within their property database (ABC Eyewitness News, 2020).
Linguistic updates are useful to help us redress inequities behind certain terminology and steer clear of it in the future so that we do not inadvertently promote stereotypes or show disrespect to someone. Some of you might have used the term “basket case”? A simple definition of a basket case might mean a person who is overworked or emotionally stressed and becomes incapacitated or unable to complete their task. While this word is often used, the origin of this word is from World War 1 to describe soldiers who were injured and therefore had to be carried in a basket. When using it to highlight a nervous person, we are downplaying the efforts and sacrifices of those who gave their lives or were seriously injured during that horrific war.
The popular nursery rhyme “Ring around the Rosie” also has a sordid history. Young children in England would recite this as they played during the plague which killed 15 percent of the population (Burton- Hill, 2015). The sentence “atishoo, atishoo, we all fall down” signifies death due to sneezes that accompanied the rashes, and ‘we all fall down’ refers to death after contracting the rash.
So, the next time you speak, please mind your language to ensure that you are not using any terms that are derogatory or offensive to anyone.
ABC Eyewitness News. (2020, June 27). ‘Master’ bedroom name to change due to overarching theme. ABC13 Houston. https://abc13.com/houston-association-of-realtors-changes-home-buying-master- bedroom/6272530/
Burton-Hill, C. (2015, June 10). The dark side of nursery rhymes. BBCpage. https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20150610-the-dark-side-of-nursery-rhymes
About the Author
Dr. Reza received her Doctorate in Educational Leadership from the California State University, Long Beach (CSULB) in May 2013. Her thesis topic, which explored the experiences and expectations of immigrant Pakistani parents regarding parental involvement in schools, has highlighted the social justice shortcomings that have been faced by these parents in the light of recent world events. A book based on her thesis, The Effects of the September 11 Terrorist Attack on Pakistani-American Parental Involvement in U.S. Schools, was released by Lexington Books in 2015. Her first children’s book, Mary and Her New Friends, which was released in 2019 by Austin Macauley Publishers, addresses themes related to South Asian culture and helps young children develop empathy for those with special needs.
Dr. Reza continues to be an active researcher on topics related to education. She has written several research based and peer-reviewed articles that address social justice issues of immigrant parents and students and she recently served as a guest editor for Diversity and Inclusion in Educational Institutions by Cambridge Scholars Publishing which was released in January 2022.
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