Casual, yet Coded, Conversations

Common words and phrases often reflect unconscious prejudices.

By Dylan Stafford

I get scorned by friends and family for arguing over semantics more often than I’d like to admit. Perhaps there is a critique to be made about how I approach arguments. It seems, however, that in an era in which it's fashionable to shrug off the impact of our words, it is more critical than ever that we think deeply about what they signify—and the ideas they reinforce. 

Increasingly, we crave this elusive feeling of “authenticity” that looks down upon mid-sentence pauses and scorns careful deliberation over what comes out of one’s mouth. I am, to be sure, a big proponent of ridding our conversations of as much deceptive nonsense as possible. This shouldn’t mean, however, that we pay less attention to our language. It is as unappealing a fact as it is true: Semantics really do matter

Take, for example, the discussion we had in class a few weeks ago over W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington, when it dawned on me how bizarre our usage of the term “black intellectual” really is. On the one hand, it makes perfect, logical sense: Black intellectuals are both black and, well, intellectual. But when has anyone heard the phrase “white intellectual” uttered? 

Now, there’s nothing overtly sinister about this disparity in usage. It is certainly useful to have a means of referring to black thinkers whose work focuses on matters of race. The terminology itself, though, reinforces much uglier ideas. We specify and emphasize “black intellectual” and in so doing, we make a subtle point of declaring that to be both black and a thinker is an aberration from the norm. We subconsciously embrace the idea that somehow intelligence and blackness are at odds. 

This use of language does not have its roots in bad intentions, but it unquestionably reflects our history, our prejudices, and our collective subconscious.  

Think about how often you have heard the term “real America” after the election this fall. “Time for the coastal elites to start focusing on real America.” “The plight of the white working class.” “Regular Americans.” We hear these ideas regurgitated again and again by politicians, pundits, and journalists alike. And what do any of them signify? That somehow one part of America could be more legitimate—more deserving of our resources, our time, and our attention. That the small towns of Iowa are more “American” than the bustling, and decidedly more diverse, streets of New York. 

In casual company, we sometimes drop the term “white trash” to disparagingly talk about poor white people. Yet, as one writer pointed out, even in denigrating a group of people, the very phrase “white trash” reinforces the idea that there is something exceptional about the idea of “trashy” people being white. It seems so unusual, in fact, that we once again need a separate term to describe it. (This ignores, of course, the viciousness of the idea that humans could be trash in the first place.) 

In referring to the senseless, vile slaughter of a particular ethnic or tribal group, we talk of “ethnic cleansing,” which is a perfectly reasonable term until you realize that it literally equates the killing of such people with the cleaning or ridding of something unpleasant and undesirable. In this case: a group of human beings. 

We say African American, Asian American, Mexican American, and Native American. But when and if we decide to refer specifically to people like myself that are both American and white, we say “white American.” It is a minor—perhaps trivial—detail, but an astounding one nonetheless. As we use it in any sort of writing, the term “white American” is uncapitalized and takes the form of a common noun—an everyday, unexceptional thing. Yet, we write about just about every other racial identity with a hyphen and capital letters—the markings of a proper, uncommon noun. 

It isn’t immediately clear what we should make of all this. Sure, our words signify things, perhaps in unintentional ways, but are we really going to nitpick each and every phrase we use and replace the problematic ones? 

It is clear that becoming aware of the subtle meanings woven into all of our daily ramblings is an intensely important thing to do. Our words and our use of language reflect our society, but they also reinforce and shape it. If we desire to change our culture, perhaps we should start with its most basic building block: words. 

Dylan Stafford is a first-year in the College.