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Linguistics of Racism: Do Words Matter?

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Racism can be achieved in either clear forms of racism or by using language that suggests racism.  There are labels used all over the world that defines or subjugates a group of people.  However, even suggestive racism can be offensive when used to define a specific stereotype or lifestyle believed to be inherent to one race.  As an example, a local American school gave an exam that contained the following questions.  (Read Suggestive Racism).  Using names like Raul, Desmond and Pedro stereotypes Latinos and African Americans as being drug dealers, thieves, and taggers. Yet these are crimes that all races engage in.  By calling Pedro’s wife a common law wife, it further defines his race as men who do not marry their partners.  By teaching kids that these crimes are associated with these races it connects stereotypes and prejudices by using these beliefs in the academic forum.  While not actually using the clear racism language, the same affects are being delivered because of the stereotyping this teacher did.  Remember this lesson later on in this presentation.

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Some statements that people make because of their races that distorts facts:
-Whites “brought” Blacks to America.
-Indigenous groups sold land to colonials in the New World.
-All Muslims are terrorists.
-Japanese were sent to Internment Camps for their safety during WWII.
-Identify Arabic Speakers as Terrorists on Planes
In reality:
-Africans were kidnapped and sold as slaves
-Colonists murdered and pillaged tribal lands.
-Whites invaded foreign lands forcing native to convert to Christianity.
-Japanese American citizens were rounded up and to imprisoned during WWII.
-Muslims are escorted off planes and/or jailed for speaking native language

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Since language is inherent to any society, the geographic location, culture, history of society, acts of racism, colonization, and classism may influence how different races interpret the same language. Second Language English Speakers not born in the US believe:
Expats: going to a country with less economic advantages than where you left
Immigrant:: going to a country with more economic advantages then you left. The use of language sets an example of superiority even when local customs and uses defines how language is used.
Hudson (1996) writes, “The uniqueness of each person’s sociolinguistic past is not the only source of differences between speakers” (p. 11).
Hudson (1996) writes, “…a Briton and an American could watch the same American film, but learn quite different facts from it about language-what for the American viewer counts as a new fact about how poor Whites in the Deep South talk might count for the Briton simply as a new fact about how Americans talk” (p. 11).
The use of language sets an example of superiority even when local customs and uses defines how language is used.
Hudson (1996) writes, “The uniqueness of each person’s sociolinguistic past is not the only source of differences between speakers” (p. 11).
Sociolinguistic differences does occur based on how one’s society uses language.

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Let’s take a look at one argument written in The Guardian in 2015 to get a better idea of what argument is being presented in this presentation.  Mawuna Remarque Koutonin writes, “In the lexicon of human migration there are still hierarchical words, created with the purpose of putting white people above everyone else. One of those remnants is the word “expat” (The Guardian, 2015).  Does language create a hierarchy where one race is superior to others?  The argument presented by Koutonin seems to think so.  While clear racism does represent the validity of this argument, language that is not clearly racist does not.  The English language is used by many different races and groups around the world.  Unfortunately, they have their own uses for the language which further complicates the argument.  So, let’s take this argument and ask expats and immigrants around the world how they use the words to see if there is a common belief.

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Participants were asked to identify their home country and visiting country in the experiment.  Responses showed that the words are used differently around the world.  Some responses showed that participants believed the word expat was associated with Americans.  A few of the participants believed that the language did portray racism while most believed it was economics.  As research showed during this research, expat was a word used when leaving a high economic outlook country and moving to a poorer economic country and immigrant was used for those leaving poorer countries and moving to better economic outlooks.  So, what is showed was that most people did not know the formal way these words were used, and it could present to non-whites that racism was a factor.  Because most Americans who had moved to Mexico were referring to themselves as Expats, they were using the term correctly.  They were also referring to groups coming to the US as immigrants which also shows the term applied under the formal definitions.  Because the dictionary shows a very general definition, the language was not clearly defined.

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Use of language defining one group as ‘expat’ and the others as ‘minority’ constructs a hierarchy where one group is defined as being superior while the others as inferior. Second Language English Speakers not born in the US believe:
Expats: going to a country with less economic advantages than where you left
Immigrant:: going to a country with more economic advantages then you left. Expat: “An expatriate” (Dictionary.com, n.d.).
Immigrant: “person who migrates to another country, usually for permanent residence” (Dictionary.com, n.d.).

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Gaining an understanding of language promotes diversity and inclusion between races.  It also opens a dialogue where issues like how language is used and perceived also leads to greater understanding and inclusion.  By looking at the same argument from White and non-White perspectives, it is easier to see how the argument is important to discuss.  Whites will learn that using some language can be interpreted as racist.  We can learn that linguistics can break down language barriers to promote diversity.  We will be more sensitive to how Non-Whites feel when certain words are used.  We can learn to use language that promotes inclusion and not racism and stereotypes.  Most importantly we can reflect on their perspectives by understanding how history and culture affects racism globally.  Non-Whites will learn to identify the difference between racism and culture exclusive language (such as expat and immigrant) by identifying clear racist language, suggestive language that promotes racism, and language that can be used differently depending on the cultural use of the language.  By seeing that British Whites do not use the same Language as American Whites or South African Whites, it leads to greater understanding that some words might suggest racism and might also be culturally used appropriately based on how they were taught.

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Each race sees language differently. Each society is responsible for the way a language is used.
What one race sees as racism might seem like normal vocabulary use to another group.
The English language is so diverse worldwide that more care needs to be placed on teachers to reflect that the language is not a perfect one shared in every group.
As an ESL teacher, I need to focus on teaching that language differs around the world depending on the culture it represents.
Each race needs to be more open in speaking about the issues we all face where language is involved so that we can understand each other’s feelings.
Language continues to be the single most important thing we have to communicate!
Language is important to me because I am responsible for its delivery.  By spotlighting this problem exists, it teaches me to be more mindful that my thoughts and ideas are only half of the conversation taking place. I hope you enjoyed this presentation.

 

 

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