As I was in Bio class the other day my Professor started in on the topic of how mutations are the cause for genetic variation in our DNA and the subsequent effect it can have on an individual or populations.
My seatmate then leaned over to me and said: I feel like she’s talking about me right now.
Lacking pigmentation in the skin and having yellow tinged hair among other features does set him apart as a having albinism; a recessive trait. So my Professor was talking about him, even though not directly.
If we then look at all words we use to describe this trait like abnormal, defective, mutated, it’s no wonder one would feel pin-pointed out even though enveloped by a sea of students.
This is a feeling I’ve had many times as well. There are certain words that make me cringe even though they’re not a direct attack against me. Whenever black is used in juxtaposition of good, clean or pure I cringe. Whenever people think the best and most efficient way to identify others is by their most obvious racial features I cringe. It’s not that it’s wrong, but that there’s so much more meaning behind the words people say.
Our words are culturally coated ranging from sweet to bitter, and a huge part of how we see the world today comes from how these words were created and used in the past.
For example the idea of a Pygmy. A Pygmy in most people’s mind is a small African clan in the heart of the jungle that are primitive, infantile and backwards. What we tend to forget is real evidence of Pygmies before they were used as a literary device by Homer was scarce if even they existed. And yet it opens up our imaginations and upon the discovery of African continent it exploded into many forms. This type of caricature, a Pygmy was used by colonial powers to set up a racial hierarchy of mankind and justify their abuses. We can then call this the start of the colonial imaginary that is a mindset of racial superiority often based on fictitious ideas that lent respectability to the enslavement, mistreatment, and brutalization of those who are categorized as others. By a gross misinterpretation of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution the legitimacy of racism as a science took hold and crushed any notions of basic human decency.
Chris Ballard, an Associated Professor at ANU, writes: Although racial science's brief claim to authority may be long past, the elements of a Western and colonial imaginary to which it lent respectability maintain deep roots within our writing and thinking. The ways in which we conceive of historical process, the casual identification of imagined groups in the past… and the narratives that we consciously or unconsciously invoke of purity and mixture may never be entirely free.
I know for a fact that it still exists today and more than just in the west. In my Chinese literature class here that I attend with many Mainlanders we talk about contemporary authors like Xie Wanying, better known by her pen name Bin Xin (冰心). She wrote a book titled Two Families《两个家庭》narrated by two children, just born, who already sense the injustices of the society they are entering. One is born rich, the other poor, one is born with fair skin and the other with dark; I think I know where this is going.
Even though the darker skinned child is healthier it’s already implied at the start that her life will be more challenging and full of difficulties. Of course there are other factors as well, but it bothers me how effortlessly we agree with the implied statements found all around us. I can’t count the number of times the Chinese beauty standard of white skin has been boiled down to the basic social stratification of economics where the poor work in the hot sun and the rich relax inside. That’s true but not the full story. Opinions on beauty didn’t change once jobs moved into fluorescent lite offices, and instead we let these notions pervade the media, advertising and everyday thought. It’s said with a shrug and off we go pretending that the world has changed and we are all enlightened, forgetting along the way that the enlightenment period coincided with the height of the Atlantic slave trade.
So what are we to do? Ban all the words that have negative connotations? Make these words our own by taking “ownership” so they no longer have the power to sting? I don’t think so.
The answer is neither simple nor clean cut. First we have to admit it. We need to know and understand how these words are used to give voice to biases hidden in our language. The next step is to reduce their use, swearing doesn’t stop overnight and neither will the instinctiveness to fall back on these words for a convenient analogy, but if we’re conscious about it they will slowly, over time fade away and lose their appeal. Lastly, context is hugely important. I get it if you use black as midnight to describe the night sky, especially if it’s at 12:00am but if you use it to describe every black person you meets skin colour I might take issue.
To sum up, I’m not asking for a giant change in attitude but a bit more understanding. Choose your words more carefully and look to see the effect it has on the people you’re speaking to. Not all people grow up with the same background context, so many words are meaningless to them, but being part of a global society that has experienced overt racism, Human Zoo’s and genocides know your words carry heavy meanings and lend themselves when we are careless to continuing the legacy of logical racialization.
- Chris Ballard (2006) Strange alliance: Pygmies in the colonial imaginary, World Archaeology, 38:1, 133-151, DOI: 10.1080/00438240500510155