Race Words

by RJ Lavallee - Date: 2007-02-12 - Word Count: 720 Share This!

A piece in the New York Times Week in Review section ("The Racial Politics of Speaking Well," by Lynette Clemetson) got me thinking about Joe Biden's gaff this past week.

Words. There was an exercise one of my professors in graduate school had us do involving words as sign and signifier -- heady linguistics bullshit -- which became very poignant for how I would view communication for the rest of my life. It's an exercise I used when I taught a basic writing class at a regional law school, and something I bring up at cocktail parties. It's something that relates to everything you say and see and read and hear every day, and relates terribly to this article -- mine and the New York Times one.

My take on the exercise played out like this when I used it on my students. Always on the first day of class I would say, "ok, take out a piece of paper and a pencil." Diligently the students follow the instructions. "This does not need to be handed in. Now. Draw me a cup."

A few students always balk at the instruction with comments like, "but I'm no good at drawing." The quality of the illustration did not matter. What I was aiming at was their individual interpretation of a word as innocuous as "cup." In a class of 12 students I always found illustrations of at least seven different types of cups.

So imagine the variability in the interpretation of the a word such as "articulate."

Within the first few paragraphs of the Times article I was thinking to myself, "great, another liberal turn at bashing people who find articulate use of language important." Then I read further, and I started to think of the perception of that word, "articulate," that African Americans have to endure in our culture.

The argument in the article is that whites bat around the word "articulate" in such a callous manner when relating to blacks...conspicuously using the word specifically for black individuals when a similar use for a white individual would seem out of place.

I thought about this as I read along and thought, "god, this is so unfortunate that this type of definition of the use of a word needs such detail regarding its use and context." But think back to the cup exercise.

The reason I think about the exercise in context of the Time article is that I routinely use the word articulate to off-handedly compliment anybody. Absolutely anybody. Black. White. Rich. Poor. I'm constantly amazed to find articulate individuals. But when I use the word "articulate," I'm considering a person who has a truly magical grasp of language and communication.

I work hard at being articulate and am confident I fall short of my own aspirations on a daily basis. I am constantly amazed by people who have furthered their educations at reputable academic institutions and they are confused by multisyllabic words. I am equally amazed by those folks who have grown up with nothing, with no personal and socially available opportunities, yet they are voracious readers who are extremely articulate.

In reading the article I came to understand how the general use of the word articulate by liberal whites in describing blacks reaks of latent bigotry. I have to add, however, that this does not discount or disallow the use of the word by some, such as myself, in complimenting a person as arbitrarily as I would compliment a person on a great golf swing.

Few people are born with an inherent grasp of language; it's a learned behavior, and one that we can all improve. Language, however, to make a nod back to the linguistics background, is a reflection of culture. We can't expect everyone to use flawless grammar in their spoken words. In fact those who do appear stiff, and myopic.

We live through out perceptions of the world, and all of our perceptions are interpretations molded by our upbringing. I'm thankful, however, to have read this Times article, and to make sure that every word I use -- from articulate to cup and beyond -- is understood in the context of the people I believe to be my audience.

My cup, by the way, is a three-inch diameter, cylindrical, eight ounce, white ceramic cup with a simple, curved handle large enough to comfortably insert your index finger with room to spare.

Originally published at: http://bentspoon.net/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=42&Itemid=26

Related Tags: language, culture, race, perceptions, linguistics

RJ Lavallee is a freelance writer, and a recent transplant to Northern California. His resume of life experiences fills seven pages of 10 point font arial text, ranging from Assistant Restaurant Manager to Windsurfing Instructor. The last ten years have had RJ doing communications consulting for small businesses and Fortune 100 corporations.

Your Article Search Directory : Find in Articles

© The article above is copyrighted by it's author. You're allowed to distribute this work according to the Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs license.

Recent articles in this category:

Most viewed articles in this category: