The Minefields of Race, Gender, and Meaning

By Lane Wallace

Senator Harry Reid's words about Barack Obama's electability, as quoted in Game Change, John Heilemann and Mark Halperin's new book on the 2008 Presidential election, have certainly sparked a firestorm of indignant arrow-slinging among politicians, and heated debate among the punditry. For anyone who's been disconnected from the media for the past two days, Reid reportedly told Obama, in encouraging him to run for President back in 2007, that the Illinois Senator was electable because his skin was light and he didn't speak in a "Negro dialect," although he could adopt the vernacular to connect with audiences who did.


Put aside, for the moment, the faction of professional political game-players, who would take indignant umbrage in an opponent's comments on the weather, if they thought it could score political points. What do the rest of us think about Reid's comment? It seems to me that his statement illustrates two messy but true realities: first, that our use of language in relation to minorities of any kind is a minefield, and second, that we still have a long way to go in terms of our ability to honestly discuss the loaded topics of race, gender, and discrimination in America. 

Reid has already called President Obama to apologize for his choice of words in saying "Negro dialect." But does his use of that term mean he's a racist? Not in the eyes of those who still identify themselves proudly as "Negro"--a category that was actually added back into the census this year because of that admittedly small but vocal percentage of ... of what? African-Americans? Blacks? People of Color? If only there were one answer that was universally accepted as "correct," or respectful, life would be simpler. But the truth is, different words have different symbolic meanings to different people, depending on their age, personal history, culture and life experiences. They also have different meanings depending on who says them, and how they're said. 

The use of the terms "black," "Negro," and even the "n-word" among African-Americans themselves has a different meaning than if used by someone outside the group--a kind of insider/outsider dividing line that exists in other minority groups, as well. (And since we're focusing on detailed word meaning here, let me be clear: I mean minority in terms of power and status, not just in terms of number. So even if women constitute slightly more than 50% of the population in terms of number, I still consider them a minority group.)

The acceptability of terms, even within a minority group itself, also changes with time. Take, for example, the use of the word "girl" to describe an adult female. Most of the women who flew military fighters in WWII--the famed WAAFS and WASPS--still refer proudly to themselves as "girls." To females growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, however, the term "girl" was taken almost universally as a put-down--one to be met with fighting fists. We were women, thank you. Not small children needing protection. Fast forward another 20 years, and females were once again touting the glory of "girl power," and egging each other on with the enthusiastic cry, "You, Go, Girl!" Note, however, that most of that use was from one girl or woman to another. It still sounds a little different coming from the outside. 

Why is that? In part, it's because terms used within a group can be a means of bonding, based on a common, insider's understanding of experience, regardless of that term's meaning in the outside world. If a woman says "girl" to another woman she knows, for example, they can be sharing a rich tapestry of understanding--including how some men historically used that word to belittle them, how they found strength and advanced despite the obstacles, and rather than trying to downplay their female traits, as women did in the early days of the women's movement, now proudly celebrate them. Of course, even among women, the term can also still be used as a put-down, depending on the dynamics of who says it, how it is said, and with what intent. 

Ah, the complexity of language! It's like the word "fine." Said one way, by someone with a smile on their face, it means "okay." Said another way, by someone with gritted teeth, it means anything BUT okay. The point is, you can't judge by word alone. Intent, delivery and context matter. And those things have to be discerned by more subtle means than a sound bite. 

In a sense, it's also like sexual harassment. In many cases, it's not a particular joke or word itself that constitutes harassment. It's whether or not those words are meant to intimidate, exclude, or harm. I've spent the past 20 years working as a woman in a field (aviation) that is not only 94% male, but which has remained stubbornly and staunchly 94% male for the past half century. And I've never had any trouble differentiating jokes or comments that were meant to hurt, put down, intimidate or exclude from those that were somewhat dated, ignorant, or politically incorrect, but without malice or bigoted agenda. It was a matter of who said them, how they said them, and what the circumstances were. 

Thus, as Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote Monday of the comparison between Reid and Trent Lott, "Trent Lott wasn't forced to resign because he said something 'racially insensitive.' He was forced to resign because he offered tacit endorsement of white supremacy--frequently." The phrase "Negro dialect" that Reid used might have been a poor choice of words, at least in some people's eyes, but it was spoken by someone who was supporting the efforts of an African-American to become President. And that contextual detail is significant. 

But the issue of how we can and can't talk about race or minority groups is worth raising, even if the current firestorm is a bluster of political game-playing. Because the land mine Senator Reid stepped on isn't just a political opportunity for those looking to score a hit anywhere they can. It's a real obstacle to any meaningful or honest discussion of race or discrimination.  

Reid's comment may have been a gaffe. But only in the sense of a gaffe being, as Michael Kinsley once said, when a politician speaks the truth. The messy and sad reality is that Reid is probably right, at least to some degree. As a nation, we were shocked that even Obama, with all his sophistication, education, and oratory skills managed to get elected. To say "how dare Reid say such a thing" is akin to Casablanca's Captain Renault exclaiming, "I am shocked! Shocked! To find that gambling is going on in here!"--as he pocketed his winnings from Rick's casino.  

Americans still have race issues. And gender issues. And issues with many other minority groups. We are not color-blind, and we are not at peace with our past. And after decades of trying, we're still not very good at having an open and honest discussion on the subject. In part, that's because the subject itself is so loaded with turf issues, ancient prejudices and assumptions, a changing balance of power, a fear of the "other," and questions of where we fit into society. But it's also hard to have an open discussion if every word becomes a potential road hazard, regardless of intent or context. 

It's not that words don't matter at all. It's just that they're the trees in the forest of communication. And we focus exclusively on them at the peril of missing bigger things--including the chance to talk calmly and honestly enough to see, understand, or develop a greater sensitivity to how the world looks through someone else's eyes. 


This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2010/01/the-minefields-of-race-gender-and-meaning/33291/