I am not an entomologist. If I was, I’d know that the word I wanted to use there was ‘etymologist’. Also I’d be covered in ants or something.
At any rate, I have not made a careful study of language, and by no means am I up on the origins of the various aphorisms and slang phrases that we use in our day-to-day life. I do, however, remember quite well a scene in the movie Malcolm X where Red (the name that Malik el Shabazz had before he was called Malcolm X) was instructed to look up the words ‘white’ and ‘black’ in the dictionary:
The part that sticks out about that scene for me is where Bains says “the truth is in there, if you can read behind the words”. We can look at the literal (and/or intended) meaning of phrases and choose to see only the surface, or we can give words a full contextual examination to get a glimpse of things unseen. In that way words can be like a verbal Rorschach test – revealing the inner thoughts and feelings of the speaker in ways that ze may not have even realized.
Now, it is not necessarily fair to read intent into individual speakers for using certain turns of phrase. I have seen my fair share of people who have been appalled when I point out the deeply imbedded racism apparent in the old-timey phrase “that’s mighty white of you”. I know I was freaked out when I first learned that it wasn’t necessarily a ‘tiger’ you were catching by the toe in the famous rhyme. So much of our language usage is unthinking – our lives would be next to impossible if we had to agonize over every word we wanted to use all the time. It’s almost impossible not to let the occasional objectionable phrase slip out.
However, it is fair game to look at language as indicative of where our society has come from:
The deputy mayor of Euro 2012 host city Gdansk in northern Poland described the city’s residents as “normal civilized white people” in a radio broadcast Tuesday before apologizing in a local newspaper. “I thank residents and city employees for behaving like normal civilized white people toward our guests who have in turn also behaved like normal white people,” Andrzej Bojanowski, 40, said in the radio interview.
Now I have no difficulty accepting Mr. Bojanowski’s explanation that the phrase really really doesn’t translate well into English:
Bojanowski promptly followed up the controversial statement with an apology in the local edition of the liberal-minded Gazeta Wyborcza daily. “I apologise to anyone I may have hurt with the clumsy phrasing I used this morning in a live broadcast. I simply wanted to thank residents and guests, whatever the colour of their skin,” he wrote.
Knowing what I know about the various racist bugbears that English has buried here and there like awkwardly racist blueberries in a muffin, it stretches my imagination not at all to consider that Polish might just have one or two surprises in there. For what it’s worth, it appears that a major anti-racist group in Poland also recognizes this as an (incredibly) unfortunate turn of phrase borne of an unconscious mind. The part that I find fascinating in this story is the fact that this phrase exists at all.
It is not strange to me that the phrase “civilized like white people” exists in Polish. To be sure, the very notion of what it means to be ‘civilized’ holds up all societies to the European model for comparison. What I find so fantastic about this story is that it provides us with an opportunity to ask real questions about the level of racial awareness we have at our fingertips. When prominent politicians (and not just in Poland – they’re out in force here, on both sides of the border) can’t parse the complete bafflegab coming out of their mouths, it doesn’t exactly paint a picture that is suggestive of the ‘mission accomplished’ that so many wish us to believe when it comes to conversations about race.
There may never be a time when we are completely free of unfair and storied language. We seem to constantly find new ways of not talking about what we’re actually talking about. The challenge, therefore, is not necessarily to police language, but to make people aware of the unintended consequences that their unthinking use of loaded phrases may have. With that must come the willingness to admit when we have screwed up, rather than trying to escape through an avalanche of dictionary references as mutterings about intent. Only once we have mastered this difficult task can we truly call ourselves civilized like white people.
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