How words can influence and perpetuate inequality: Feminism and African-Americans

There are many very simple, subtle aspects of life that effect the way we communicate with, view and treat others. One such aspect lies in linguistics. My first few examples are concerned with inequality and how (in the English language at least) words can play a large role. For instance, intolerance towards women may be effected by the very words we use. The word women, when compared to the word man is slightly less simple and almost acts like a separate type of ‘man’. The word man seems to be like the fundamental word for human kind and by adding a wo- onto the front kind of suggests that women are not equal to man, rather they are just a variation or a subtype. The same can be said for the fe- in front of male, for female and male. Words like boy or girl are more neutral and tend to suggest a more equal playing field. Also, Spanish words like nino and nina meaning boy and girl respectively are more equal as well. Now do I think that these words are what started sexism in the first place? Of course not. I’m not even sure how much of an impact they have on behavior, but there may be some effect subconsciously (consciously now). Humans are extremely intelligent but there are countless ways in which very simple and subtle things impact our society and ourselves that we may never have the chance to realize.

Another linguistic inequality comes from some of the words we use to describe different races, nationalities or religions. This becomes evident when we examine some of the actual words we use on a day to day basis without even knowing what we are doing. Take the word American for example. Say we want to describe the nationality of a white woman standing on the side walk. If she was born in the U.S. we call her an American. It doesn’t matter where her ancestors were born because she was born here and that’s all that matters when describing her nationality. Now say we take a Mexican man or a French woman or an Asian child. If they were all born in America most of us would say that they are Americans. But what happens when we make this man, woman or child black? They are no longer an American, they are now African-American. But why? Why do we call everyone who is non-black an American and everyone who is black African-American? I understand that some people use the terms Latin-American or Asian-American from time to time, but African-American is by far the most widespread denomination of the American citizen. It is also interesting that I have never once been called a German-American, nor have I ever heard this term used. Likewise for many of the European-Americans, you rarely here English-American or Dutch-American. It’s like if you are white it doesn’t matter where you came from-your white, so your in the special privileged group. I look at Asian Americans and African-Americans and German/French/English etc.-Americans the same in terms of equality, civil rights and I think the majority of Americans feel the same way so why does our language reflect otherwise? Could it be that most of the words and terms we use come from the past when racism and discrimination dominated society? Maybe, but I think this comes from a deeper more psychological fact rather than just blatant racism. I think it may be as simple as the very appearance of an individual. Let me explain. Back when our country was just founded and there were immigrants coming from Europe there was a group of people who were really looked down upon and I am not talking about black people. It was the Irish who were hated, who were looked down upon as worthless drunks who fought and stole and caused problems for police. Images of ‘Irish Need Not Apply’ signs come to mind. But a after a few decades and then a century or two look what has happened. The Irish, while still known for their drinking, have more or less transcended their own inequality. How many hate-groups can you think of who discriminate against the Irish? It is as if their ‘whiteness’ has allowed them to slip in behind the scenes of the entire white community without being noticed, declaring their seat at the table of equality. A similar thing happened with the Jews. They were disliked very intensely but because they are ‘close enough’ to the average white person they too have slipped into our dinner party. But that leaves one race with no seat. Africans, because of the contrast in skin color must find it much more difficult to sit at our equality table. While times have changed and views towards racism have improved greatly, the people who are by far still the most unequal is our black brothers and sisters. Because of their intrinsic non-whiteness it is much harder to transcend racist tendencies and I cannot imagine how frustrating this must be. Let me end this meditation by saying I am by no means an expert on race or justice or inequalities. I do however find them to be extremely important, practical and interesting. I plan on reading some of the works by Dr. Cornel West and MLK Jr. , maybe then I will have something useful to say. Thank you.


About ben james

"The stars keep me up at night" -some song I heard one time Human. Studying the intersection of Neuroscience and Computation. Wanna be (astro) physicist.
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One Response to How words can influence and perpetuate inequality: Feminism and African-Americans

  1. Pingback: I am racist, and so are you. | Bens Blog!

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