I listened to an interesting discussion about racial bias in language on YouTube the other day. The conversation was between a Caucasian host and an African American woman who consults on race sensitivity. The guest made the point that attention to language is one way to change cultural attitudes. In my experience this is true. During its second wave, The Woman’s Movement had a similar discussion over the words abortion and choice. Also, as a wordsmith, I understand language’s power to shape responses. The question in my mind is do we need boundaries when we tinker with words? Can sensitizing a language come too near to sanitizing or laundering?
Early in the YouTube discussion, the guest made the observation that the words light and dark were often associated with notions of good and bad, so much so that as a child, she wondered if having dark skin made her bad. A fair point. I’ve often wondered why African Americans allow themselves to be referred to as black. Black is a color, not a race or ethnicity. If I were to sensitize our language, I’d start there.
In any case, the woman’s response to the words dark and light as a child are personal and cannot be dismissed as being wrong. But are they true and should feelings alone govern?Rather than peg the connotations of light and dark to racial attitudes, it might be historically more accurate to peg them to prehistoric conditions. Daylight was a time when our ancestors could perceive danger. Night deprived them of that power and made them feel vulnerable.
I’m no sociologist, but I suspect that same duality exists through much of human literature. As an example, I cite a Togo myth out of Kenya. It tells of the struggle to dominate the sky between the Sun and the Moon. Their quarrel grew so violent, God eventually intervened and ruled as follows: the Sun would be brighter and shine during the day for kings and workers. The Moon would shine only at night for thieves and witches. (African Mythology, by Geoffrey Parrinder, pub. Paul Hamlyn, London, 1967, pg. 71.)
If we go too far in our desire to rid language of racial bias, we may find we endanger the whole of global literature, and do so with an insensitivity to the origin of words. No one, I think, wants to court that loss.
As a modern example of the havoc a mindless culling of the language can reap, I will refer to an incident that occurred a few years ago when the assistant to a city mayor created an uproar with his use of the word niggardly in a financial report. Those unfamiliar with the term–which means stingy and is probably Nordic in origin–charged the young man with making a racial slur. Their complaint, being vehement, landed him on the streets. Only after the dust had settled and people were given enough time to consult their dictionaries did they discover their error, allowing the young man to reclaim his job…with a raise, I hope.