Beyond Black and White, Part II: Language as Means to Effective Solidarity

(By Teresa)

I hope that this addendum will clarify and expand the ideas I presented in my previous blogpost, Beyond Black and White.  My essential thesis in the former post was we are not born knowing racial categories–these have been dictated to us by historical circumstance and cultural convention–and so we can challenge these categorizations, especially with regards to how we, as individuals, see other people.  Yet, how can this shift play out in the context of individual identity, as well as wider society in which race (as we have defined it) continues to have serious consequences? 

We are all people.  For me, this affirmation means that everyone possesses inherent dignity and value, irrespective of any other characteristics, whether chosen personally or imposed by others.  Unfortunately, in daily life we lose sight of our common bonds and we often view others as mere shells, rather than fully human beings who, like us, hold dreams and fears, joys and worries.  It takes energy and time to detach momentarily from our own plans and concerns–our own self– and instead consider everyone around us as a unique person of unknowable depth.

Because we forget, overlook, or purposefully ignore others’ humanity, we contribute to pain, injustice, and discrimination.  This fundamental blindness to one another underlays society’s problems.  Although curing this blindness is almost certainly a utopian impossibility,  I firmly believe that we can train ourselves to consciously recognize others as people, and not just moving points that traverse our daily life (an idea further developed in my post Social Change, not Dehumanization.)   I suggested, in “Beyond Black and White,” that we avoid defining others through race-related adjectives, which reduce those we see to a racial identity with which they may or may not themselves identify.  If we instead think “person,” “human,” “friend,” or “brother/sister,”  we mentally affirm an essential affinity between us and others, even if the other is a stranger on the street.

“Wait!” you say. “Won’t pretending race doesn’t exist just allow people with lighter skin to remain in willful ignorance about our country’s historical and ongoing mistreatment of groups of people with darker skin?”

I acknowledge the concern, and I will get to structural injustices below.  However, my message is not to simply pretend race doesn’t exist, but to remind us that it exists only to the extent that we have allowed society to define it. Our DNA may determine our skin tone, but the association of skin color with a particular “race” is a social convention that our culture has created.  Therefore, little by little, we can undermine these arbitrary separations that lead to prejudice and discrimination.  We do not have to accept oppressive discursive structures that lead us to divide ourselves into disparate groups through language.  Racial terms, such as “black” and “white,” as we employ them today, are neither self-evident nor genetically determined; rather they are themselves a product of our country’s history of slavery, segregation, and on-going marginalization.

“Wait!” you may protest again.  “If no one is supposed to identify as ‘black’ (or other races), aren’t you just enacting another form of oppression by denying marginalized groups ownership of their culture?”

This is a more difficult objection, for I neither have nor want the authority to dictate how anyone sees him/herself.  But maintaining a critical eye when we view the terms we use to define society will not erase people, or their cultures, if we truly seek inclusion and solidarity.  We should continue to celebrate cultural heritages, as well as the varieties of cultural expression in our country today.  Anyone who feels that a racial term (“black,” “white,” or otherwise) strongly defines their experience should continue to self-identify as such; this is their decision.  I do hope, if our society grows more equitable and we see one another as family, that racial terms will slowly become more neutral and eventually fade away, but such a transition will take time and can only occur in conjunction with authentic gains toward equality.

My immediate concern, however, arises when we begin to define others.  How can we see one another more as people, and less as categories, racial or otherwise?  Is mentally thinking “brother/sister” or “friend” when we see others a simplistic measure with no concrete results, mere wishful thinking?

Identifying one another as a friend or brother/sister is much more than a naïve fantasy because the words we use, either in our own heads or when communicating with others, shape how we view the world.  Consider the choice of words to refer to those who are in our country without the proper documentation: are they “illegals,” “undocumented  immigrants,” “dreamers,” perhaps even “refugees”? Each term emphasizes a different characteristic with the purpose of rousing a particular attitude toward those in question.  This attitude, though itself intangible, will translate to subsequent support for or opposition to concrete policies that directly affect people.  People.  In the end, these people in our country are, most fundamentally, people–people like us.  Whether we try to solve immigration or another controversial issue, remembering that all involved are people (our human family!) can help us find common ground.  Such an approach leads to real, useful change that affirms the dignity of all, and especially the dignity of the most marginalized.

Psychological research has demonstrated that our brains automatically register and respond to different physical characteristics, particularly those associated with race; as a result we may unwittingly display a negative or prejudiced reaction to certain people without even being aware that we are doing so.  Conversely, if we train our brains to immediately recognize those we see as friends, we can counteract destructive social messages that we may have inadvertently absorbed.  After all, will anyone discriminate against me or you if they view us as sisters and brothers?  Simply smiling can overcome implicit race-related biases.  At the individual level, therefore, changing our language can be very powerful.  As psychologist David Amodio notes, ” We might be able to reduce automatic prejudice just by convincing people that they are all on the same team” (51).

Naïve colorblindness?  Not at all.  Rather, we cultivate an active and conscientious inclusive attitude toward one another.

For anyone who is skeptical, I challenge you to spend a week purposefully viewing everyone you see with goodwill and openness, as beloved family members, with no other preconceived notions.  I am confident that you will gain an increased sense of interconnection and solidarity with one another.  This sense of solidarity forms an indispensable foundation for actions toward equality.  That is, we cultivate an inclusive attitude through our words and simultaneously ensure that our actions follow suit.  After training your mind to identify everyone as a “friend,” take Harvard’s implicit bias tests and see how you perform; our linguistic worldview will affect how we treat one another.

Of course, we cannot stand outside of society, nor change conventional language through sheer will-power or good intentions. Race (as we have defined it) has very real, concrete consequences for many people on a daily basis.  These people may not have the luxury of deciding whether or not to consider themselves “black” (or other racial categories) because society labels and treats them as such regardless.

Our response to racism and social inequality necessarily includes ongoing, concerted efforts to correct structural problems, such as the justice system and poverty.  My hope is that anyone reading this is also involved in programs and movements that aim to achieve concrete results and make visible gains toward equality.  Changing our language must complement, not substitute or replace, this essential activism.  Yet perhaps, I would suggest, these structural problems cannot be fully remedied until we stop inadvertently perpetuating categories that separate “us” and “them.”

We will continue to contend with racial categorizations as long as our society groups us racially and disproportionately marginalizes members of particular races.  Yet, we as individuals form our society, and we can slowly transform it.  Take for example Daryl Davis, who has befriended hundreds of people in the KKK, many of whom subsequently left the organization.  (A documentary about him–trailer here–is available on Netflix.)

I can imagine that someday, in the future, we will not accept racial categories as self-evident, but as the social and historical constructs they are.  To reach this point, we have to begin somewhere; our language is a necessary point of departure.  Our speech is action, and we can shape the way we think about and act toward one another through our own words, as well as the media we choose to consume.

We all share a common humanity, and I firmly believe that this shared identity is greater than the differences we have created and perpetuated in our societies. Intentionally perceiving and portraying one another as human beings, rather than data points of a racial (or other) category, is one of many necessary steps if we hope to create just and equitable systems.


Works Cited

Amodio, David. “The Egalitarian Brain.” Are We Born Racist? New Insights from Neuroscience and Positive Psychology. Ed. Jan Marsh et. al. Boston: Beacon Press, 2010.  45-52.

The cover image is the Hands in Solidarity, Hands of Freedom mural in Chicago.