Category Archives: Language

The Language of Responsibility

I’ve always been fascinated by the language we use to describe falling. With little kids, we say “Susie fell.” But for an elderly person, we say “Grandma had a fall.” That passiveness—as if Grandma were a victim of gravity— is akin to “accidents happen.” Maybe I’m a control freak, but I don’t much believe in accidents.

Recently I asked whether a young man who’d damaged his grandmother’s car in a rear-end collision felt embarrassed. Oh no, I was told. It was a rainy night, and the woman in front of him stopped short. So much for responsibility! But wouldn’t the young man gain a greater sense of control, of pride in his potential power, if he acknowledged that he hadn’t kept a safe following distance?

I worry about a little boy who leaves a trail of broken toys and bruised buddies as he zooms through his play—all “by accident” and thus forgiven. I explain that although his intention is to do no harm, some forethought about cause and effect is needed. I tell him about a kid whose playmate swung him around near a flagpole. The resulting concussion necessitated weeks of missed school and left him too dizzy even to watch TV. The little boy’s eyes grow wide, but I’m afraid he still wouldn’t notice a flagpole.

Years ago at Trenton High, a young man who usually loved science came in, put his head on his desk, and hid his face in his arms. I went over, bent down, and realized he was crying. Two members of his family had been seriously injured the previous snowy night when the car in front had skidded on a patch of ice and they had been unable to avoid a collision. “I should have driven them home,” my student sobbed.

You? I tried to console him. “It’s not your fault. What could you have done?”

He looked up, still berating himself. “I race stock cars. I know how to swerve to avoid collisions.” So much for what I knew about my students, but what a sense of responsibility! He believed that, given the weather, he should have anticipated issues with icy patches and volunteered to drive. Too much forethought?

When is an “accident” an accident, and what is the impact of the language we choose? I don’t have the answers, but the question seems useful.

The “for a” Stereotype

While thinking about dangerous pronouns, I was alerted to an article in The New York Times about microaggressions.  “Microaggressions,” I learned, are “common verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile or negative slights to marginalized groups.”  One example in The Times article, however, “You’re really pretty … for a dark-skin girl,” seemed to me not “micro” but outright racist – because of the words “for a.”

We hear and use “for a” even as children on the playground. “Your hair is awfully long for a boy” or “You’re pretty strong for a girl.” Do we even notice the stereotypes about boys and girls in these comparisons? No, probably we accept them. Instead, we focus on the criticism or compliment directed to the individuals in these sentences. Perhaps we should also think about what the “for a” says about our expectations for boys and girls – the box “for a” puts them in.

A feminist talking with a male acquaintance who expresses sympathy for her cause says, “You’re pretty smart for a man.” Does this remark raise eyebrows? I doubt it. She’s putting men down but also satirizing the stereotype of men as insensitive, macho types. Besides, men are so powerful already that no one needs to stick up for them. But again, what does the “for a” reveal about her expectations for men?

Conversely, if a white person says to a black woman “You’re really pretty,” is the “for a” implied? I was told it was politically incorrect to say “Obama is so articulate” because it implied “for a black man.” I was perplexed. In my mind I was comparing Obama to George W. Bush. No race imagined or implied.  I guess I could get in trouble if I said “You said that so well” to an Asian or Latino person, even if I meant the clarity of his or her reasoning, not the ability to speak English.

It’s hard to think of a compliment that isn’t really a judgment, a comparison to a group or norm. “You sing beautifully” implies better than others.  It’s unfortunate if someone hears an unintended and limiting “for a” in that compliment, but such is the burden of our history of discrimination.   Certainly we can and should stop using “for a” aloud. The goal, if we are ever to achieve a post-racial society, is for all of us to stop thinking it.

The Most Dangerous Pronoun

The most dangerous pronoun is “they”—and its objective case “them.” Unless its antecedent is a string of specific nouns, “they” is most likely to perpetrate misconceptions and downright lies. Pronouns are convenient, but please don’t put me in a box with “them.”

The safest pronouns are, of course, “I” and “me.” This is because I know myself well. “You” is probably the next safest pronoun. I would hesitate to say anything about you to you that wasn’t justified and, I hope, sensitive. “He” and “she” refer to just one person and thus may have more validity than “them,” although I’ve heard slanderous things about “him” and “her” that were nothing more than gossipy fictions. Finally, there’s “we” and “us.” Do I really know enough about people like me to use “we” accurately? How could I complete the sentence “We Wellesley graduates…”? Earned high-power positions? Had children? Took up knitting?

This topic came to mind as I was reading comments on the PBS NewsHours’ segment about disparity by race in education, which I discussed in my blog. One comment read, “The black community needs to grow up and start taking responsibility for themselves, and the democrats need to stop treating them as children.”

It’s obviously racist, but taking responsibility for oneself is an accepted standard of adulthood. What would happen to the comment if, instead of “the black community,” the writer had used a string of nouns describing the people who are not taking responsibility for themselves? If I think about why someone might not take responsibility for himself, I get an almost endless list of possibilities: mental or physical illness, lack of opportunity to work, wages too low to pay for food and housing, alcohol or drug addiction, a felony conviction or lack of training that impacts the ability to get work, depression, bad decisions that prevent getting ahead like gambling or having an extra child—and, yes, a willingness to rely on others, be it the government or one’s parents.

Accurately written the sentence would read, “Able-bodied, healthy people who have the carfare to get to vocational school for training or to the job itself and who do not have to stay home with a baby need to grow up and start taking responsibility for themselves….” Wouldn’t adding “black” to that sentence sound funny? Only “black able-bodied, healthy people…have to take responsibility”?

And who are the “black community”? Is there a corresponding “white community”? Do people who are not responsible for themselves think of themselves as a community or act as a community? Interestingly, a number of black leaders see a growing need for community and look back longingly to the days when churches were strong, when neighbors disciplined each other’s children, and even when schools were segregated That black community was a positive force.

“They” is a dangerous pronoun, and using it reflects arrogance. How much can one person know about others?


Beware the Black Box

For my first post, I’ve chosen an opinion piece I wrote in 2009 that was published in The Times of Trenton.  Although the incidents cited can no longer be called “recent,” I believe that the gist of my essay remains relevant.  Do you agree?

Beware the Black Box

I discovered the black box the night I got caught acting black. As a white liberal who knew few black people, I’d taken a job at Trenton High School. I’d find out who black people were.

I noticed they dress up. I began wearing spike heels and Sunday outfits to work. Black people are loud and demonstrative. At a party at my house, to which we’d invited Princeton friends both black and white, I showed off my new insights. When the Trenton guests arrived, late because they’d had two parties that night, I greeted them boisterously and did little shuffles with my feet in appreciation of their humor. See, I was one of them. I glanced at my other black guests for approval. Their faces were blank; the sudden silence, deafening.

Like a tourist in the foreign land of black people, I’d noticed only differences at Trenton High. I’d overlooked the modest black teachers, just as I hadn’t counted my Princeton friends as black. And I’d made other assumptions. Remembering TV footage of the freedom marches of the 1960’s, I expected black teachers to be united in their dedication to black students. They weren’t. Black teachers were just like white teachers: some worked tirelessly; others came and went with only a newspaper tucked under their arms, had their TV’s tuned to the soap operas during afternoon lessons, or threw up their hands at “these kids.”

Trenton High had a reputation for being dangerous. Princeton friends called me a saint for working there. For a time, I reveled in the title. But it began to sound racist as my knowledge of the students broadened. Yes, I had a few tough kids, but no one ever threatened me. Most kids wanted to learn and appreciated that my TV was off. And there were students who could have been my own children. These students, and black and white teachers like us, fought for excellence. Administrators, black and white, resisted, saying almost proudly, “Trenton isn’t Princeton.”

Skin color and dress guarantee nothing about socio-economic status, ability, educational level or, most important, values. A Trenton High colleague, an elderly black woman, recounted the time three young black men in hooded sweatshirts had joined her in the elevator in her building. She was terrified, sure of being robbed. When the elevator reached her floor, the young men turned to her, “Can we help carry your groceries?” She was mortified.

So I learned what I should have known all along and what many others already knew: there is no black box. My well-intentioned mission to define what it is to be black was a racist, wasteful exercise.

Yet we keep putting people in boxes. For Cornel West, Princeton University professor and author of Race Matters, the box is the “blues people.” In a recent New York Times Magazine article, “Is Obama the End of Black Politics?”, black politics is defined as fighting racial injustice, unequal opportunity and poverty. Who’s looking out for the black middle class, the black upper class?

When Jesse Jackson criticized Obama for “talking down to black people,” he tossed responsible black parents into a box with the absentee fathers whom Obama had singled out. But when Obama recently shamed CEO’s for taking excessive bonuses in a time of recession, no one said he was “talking down to white people.”

I’ve been put in a box, too. A black colleague at Trenton High told me her first impression: “White lady. Here for the paycheck. Probably can’t get a job anywhere else.” She soon placed me in the cubby hole of dedicated teachers, but I recently found myself back in the box when I exclaimed, “Obama is so articulate!” I was expressing my relief after eight years of George Bush’s mumble-mouth.

“That’s politically incorrect,” a friend told me. “You’re implying that you’re surprised a black man can be articulate.”

Good grief. Langston Hughes and Martin Luther King, Jr, were articulate. Besides, I wasn’t thinking of Obama as black. But Joe Biden and I got put in that box.

White people are usually cubby-holed. As voters we are soccer moms, blue-collar Reaganites or Christian fundamentalists. Contrast the “black vote.” White people are Presbyterians, Mormons, and Episcopalians. Black people attend the “black church.” Our language seems stuck in an historical box. It doesn’t reflect the infinite variety among the people we call “black.”

To me, the most mysterious and dangerous term is “black culture.” Recently on NPR, black mystery writers rejoiced that their stories reveal “black culture.” They meant the lifestyle of black people in Los Angeles in the 1980’s. Dorothy Sayres described the lifestyle of upper-class England in her mysteries, but we don’t call it “white culture.”

Let’s abandon “black culture” and celebrate the specifics: African rhythms, the Harlem Renaissance, jazz, hip-hop, soul food, Toni Morrison’s storytelling, Alvin Ailey’s choreography…. Why? Because some people think “black culture” means an uneducated, urban poor.

Beware the boxes. We’re not in a post-racial society if politicians aren’t “black enough” to represent the poor, or if smart black children are told they’re “acting white.”

Sadly, Eric Holder’s call to talk about race merely flipped the boxes into soap boxes. If we’re going to respect our common humanity and our individuality, we should do as our mothers said and watch our language.