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Language, Race, and Ethnicity

Language may create and reinforce our perceptions about race and cthnicity by transmitting preconceived ideas about the superiority of one category of people over another. Let’s look at a few images conveyed by words in the English language in regard to race/cthnicity Words may have more than one meaning and create and/or reinforce negative images. Terms such as blackhearted (malevole “‘) and expressions such as a black mark (a detrimental fact) and Chinaman’s chance of success (unlikely to succeed) associate the words black or Chinaman with negative associations and derogatory imagery. By contrast. expressions such as tluus white of you and the good guys wear white lutts reinforce positive associations with the color white.  Overtly derogatory terms such as nigger, kike, gook; honkey; chink, spic, and other racial-ethntc slurs have been “popularized” in movies, music, comic routines, and so on. Such derogatory terms are often used in conjunction with physical threats against persons and are increasingly viewed as words that should not be used even in a supposedly “joking” manner.

• Words are frequently used to create or reinforce perceptions about a group. For example, Native Americans have been referred to as “savages” and “primitive,” and African Americans have been described as “uncivilized:’ “cannibalistic:’ and “pagan.”

• The “voice” of verbs may minimize or incorrectly identify the activities or achievements of people of color. For example. the use of the passive voice in the statement “African Americans were given the right to vote” ignores how African Americans fought for that right. Active-voice verbs may also inaccurately attribute achievements to people or groups. Some historians argue that cultural bias is shown by the very notion that “Columbus discovered America”-given that America was already inhabited by people who later became known as Native Americans (see Stannard, 1992; Takaki, 1993).

• Adjectives that typically have positive connotations can have entirely different meanings when used in certain contexts. Regarding employment, someone may say that a person of color is “qualified” for a position when it is taken for granted that whites in the same position are qualified (see Moore, 1992). In addition to these concerns about the English Ianguage. problems also arise when more than one language is involved. Across the nation. the question of whether or not the United States should have an “official” language continues to arise. Some people believe that there is no need to designate an official language; other people believe that English should be designated
as the official language and that the use of any other language should be discouraged or negatively sanctioned. Recently. the city oouncil in Farmers Bmnch-a suburb of Dallas. Texas-adopted a resolution declaring English as ihe officiDilanguage of that city. According to the resolution. the use of a common language “removes barriers of misunderstanding and helps to unify the people of Farmers Branch, [the stale of Texus.l and the United States and helps to enable the full economic and civic participation of all of its citizens(City of FarmersBranch, 2006). This resolution was passed at the same time as a local law that banned “illegal immigrants” from renting apnrtmcnts in Fanners Branch. Are deep-seated social and cultural issues embedded in social policy decisions such as these? Although the nited States has al~ays been a nation of immigrants, III recent decades this country has experienced rapid changes in population that have brought about greater diversity in languages and cultures. Recent data gathered by the U.S. Census Bureau (see “Census Profiles: Languages Spoken in U.S. Households”) indicate that although more than gO percent of the people in this country speak only English at horne, almost 20 percent speak a language other than English. The largest portion (over 10 percent of the U.S. population) of non- English speakers speak Spanish at home. If we think about language from a functionalist perspective, we see that a shared language is essential to maintaining a common culture.

From this approach, language is a stabilizing force in society and an important means of cultural transmission. Through Ian guage, children learn about their cultural heritace and develop a sense of personal identity in relation;hip to their group. For example, Latinos/as in New Mexico and south Texas use dichos-proverbs or sayings that are unique to the Spanish language-as a means of expressing themselves and as a reflection of their cultural heritage. Examples of dich os include Alldn tu cmnillo sill ayuda de vecino (“Walk your own road without the help of a neighbor”) and Amor de lejos ~ para pendejos (“A long-distance romance is for fools”). Dichos are passed from generation to generation as a priceless verbal tradition whereby people can give advice or teach a lesson (Gandara, 1995). On the other hand, if we look at language from a conflict approach, language is a source of power and a means of social control. Language may be used to perpetuate inequalities between people and between groups because words can be used (whether or not intentionally) to “keep people in their place.” As the linguist Deborah Tannen (1993: B5) has suggested. ‘The devastating group hatreds that result in so much suffering in our own country and around the world are related in origin to the small intolerances in our everyday conversations=- our readiness to attribute good intentions to ourselves and bad intentions to others.” Language, then, is a reflection of our feelings and values

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