Word Choice | The Power to Shape Attitudes and Entrench Stereotypes

Coffee shops are somewhat like water troughs.  People come in parched and desperate for the black, sometimes sweet, yet always caffeinated rush, but also to shoulder up alongside the regulars, say “howdy,” and postulate on the problems of the local community and the world.

My remaining-at-home kids and I are habitual, four to six visits per week Starbuckers. It helps, of course, that my middle daughter is a recently hired Starbucks barista, but even before she took on her newfound responsibilities and identity (yes, she wears the logo with pride and a smile), we were regulars.

starbucks

If you frequent a place long enough, its staff and customers become a surrogate-like family. Driving up, we can determine before stepping foot in the store whether certain “family members” are there, in particular, a local construction contractor, whose presence is noted in the parking lot by his company’s logo, painted large and long on his dual rear wheel truck.

In Texas, clergy, aka religious professionals, seem to be regular Starbucks fixtures. Several weeks back I was sitting in one of four leather chairs located in our store’s entrance cove, a much vied for place from which to sit, sip, survey incomings and outgoings, and surmise about life. Three gentlemen who obviously knew each other, at least at a “Starbucks level,” were talking about a microbotic wonder. One of the men got up and left for a scheduled business meeting, accompanied by an attractive looking woman, whom I had not seen before. After they left, one of the remaining two men–a minister at a nearby church–remarked to the other, “That’s a pretty girl! That’s about the best work he ever did.”

Was he merely talking “Texan” or did his reference to the woman as “work” reflect and reveal something deeper, less respectful? For example, almost every driver has “worked” to own a vehicle, particularly a first car. The purchased item then becomes one’s “property,” to drive or (mis)treat as one determines or feels like. True of any material object, the allure and luster–e.g., new car smell–diminishes over time, and with it, too, one’s affection for, commitment to care, to maintain, and to fidelity.

If my academic studies benefited my life in no other way, than this one, I would still be exceedingly grateful.  In my face-to-face, experiential studies of other cultures and religions, I learned that our choice of words and our repetitive use of them shape and maintain images, stereotypes, attitudes and perceptions of others–especially those who have not been on the victor’s side of history’s narratives, which, to date, probably includes most anyone who is not male and WASP!

Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and author, David K. Shipler, observes in his book A Country of Strangers: Blacks and Whites in America, that with contentious topics like race, words have the power to label and circumscribe people, particularly those, historically, who have been bereft of privilege and power.

strangers

Despite the widespread popularity of “tolerance” messages, which on the surface positively advocate for recognizing and respecting people different from oneself in matters racial, religious, cultural, socioeconomic or sexual, such words have become tainted over time by their secondary definitions of “variation from a standard,” or “capacity to endure hardship.” As Shipler sensitively notes of African-Americans, “Black Americans do not want to be ‘tolerated’ as one tolerates deviance or pain. Anyone who advocates tolerance today risks being misunderstood as grudgingly accepting the unpleasant qualities of another group.”

When I was in my early 20’s, I remember driving in a pickup truck through a section of rural, East Texas with a much older and prominent community resident. It was spring time and orange wildflowers–Mexican Hats (Ratibida Columnaris)–were in everywhere display. Obviously trying to conversationally connect with me and provoke a laugh, he remarked with a mischievous smile on the abundance of “n&#g*r tits” in the fields.

Mexican Hat

Mexican Hat

My discomfort might not have been as acute if I had not just a few weeks prior, had another, even more senior, yet this time female resident shout out twice to her near-deaf husband upon the ringing of their doorbell and during my visit to their home, “THE N&#G@R’S HERE!” (they were expecting an African-American to come by and clean their rain gutters) Come to find out years later that racial prejudice in this part of the United States, was endemic, such that one nearby civil rights advocate claimed “East Texas is Mississippi 50 years ago.”

Benedictine nun and popular speaker/writer, Joan Chittester, observes in Called To Question that “once an image is cast in stone” it’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to go back or reclaim its essence again. Dorothy Hammond and Alta Jablow, co-authors of The Myth of Africa, similarly echo about Africa and Africans, “The errors and biases so perpetuated have by now acquired an inviolable tenure.” The truth of this statement is no where more evident than Africa, a place synonymous in the Western mind with “the dark continent.”

Chittester speaks from a woman’s and oft-times socially invisible and undervalued perspective to the inviolable “heresy of God the Father,” in which, religious professionals legitimate their male positions of ecclesial power by stifling, even excommunicating anyone who dares question the status quo’s interpretation of Scripture–one, in which, God, despite disclosing identity to Abraham in neutral gender terms, “I am who am,” is from their accustomed privileged position Solus “Father.”

Call it over-sensitized, call it picky, call it anal, call it what you will, the truth is words possess a passive and active heritability, reflecting attitudes and perceptions toward others different to oneself, as well as maintaining entrenched stereotypes and emotions.

Choice and use of words is often subtle yet significant. It is common among the Christian community to hear or read reference to people different as “non-Christian.” Obviously the implication is that “Christian” or “Christianity” is the exemplar, the standard by which all others are to be assessed. Another popular term of reference is “uneducated,” implying that if you don’t have at least a high school education you’re “less than” — uncivilized, uncultured, uninformed, unworthy, unimportant, and un-opinionated. As my mentor respectfully distinguished, why can’t we be more sensitive by referencing those who possess “informal” versus “formal” education?

Given the world population’s unabated increase, coupled with simmering tensions and all out conflict in countless hot spots, the least we–aka, those privileged to be living in a part of the country/world not yet noticeably affected by overt conflicts of relationship–can do in reshaping a more peaceful, equitable, and just world order, is begin intentionally utilizing vocabulary and language that is respectful, inclusive, and sensitive.

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Filed under Culture and Africa, Diversity, Life, Mentor, Pedagogy, Perspective, Relationships, Religion and Faith, Violence

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