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Commentary: The imperfections of an evolving language

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 16, 2009 - The recent gaffe of Peter Alexander, a reporter for MSNBC, spurred me to address the imperfections of language. He congratulated "this country's colored people" on the NAACP's hundred years. He later made a vague reference to his comments and congratulated "all the people of color."

I chuckled watching the clip, but to be honest I hear students frequently make the same misstep struggling with language. I teach about race, which is not a topic most of us discuss on a daily basis, so we are left hoping we don't offend others and unsure of what terms to use.

My intention is to use the incident as an example rather than criticize this reporter. It illustrates how, regardless of intentions, we can botch exchanges. We use language as a tool to communicate effectively, yet language is ever changing. To keep up with those shifts is not necessarily giving into being "politically correct." Inherently, we are doomed to fail if we assume that language is mastered only once. On the contrary, it is an ongoing process shaped by the evolution of words and connotations.

Let's take for example the word "gypped" or the phrase "I got gypped." If you asked someone to define the word, they would most likely say that it means you were cheated. However, they might not know that the term reflects historical beliefs that people from East India and the Balkan states, often referred to as Gypsies, cheat and steal.

Similarly, the term "Jewed" or the phrase "Jewed down" often refer to the stereotype of Jewish people as swindlers. These are two examples of how words and phrases creep into our every day use without us fully understanding how they developed. Some would argue that if you are using a term and don't know that it has a negative connotation, you cannot be held responsible for historical baggage. That is a thin excuse that won't even work in our court of law.

I once received a ticket for going 35 mph in what I thought was a 30-mph-zone. Little did I know, since I was new to the area, that a school was nearby. It was then considered a 20-mph-zone. My ignorance didn't absolve me of responsibility. The judge upheld the hefty fine in addition to court fees. Not knowing didn't spare me the first time, and I am now certainly more aware of school zones (which seem to be everywhere!) and the need to comply with the speed limit.

While the examples given here or some version of them might, unfortunately, still be heard today, some shifts are clearer. If you were to refer to an African American as Negro, you would be deemed from the dark ages. Similarly, we seem to have gotten that things are Oriental whereas people are Asian. It's easier to see these shifts, because they have more definitively occurred rather than being in process.

"People of color" is a term that has gained wide acceptance but is still unclear to many. My understanding is that it developed as an umbrella term to collectively refer to groups who have been systematically disadvantaged by our racial hierarchy (perhaps to avoid having to run through the long list and be sure not to forget anyone). It is imperfect but preferred over "minorities" or "non-Whites."

Those terms have negative connotations, because people of color are the majority worldwide and fast becoming the majority in the United States. And as Beverly Tatum rightfully noted: We don't call women "non-men," so why would we define other groups solely based on what they are not?

Getting back to the initial example, beyond the misnomer used by the reporter, I was also struck by the reaction of Benjamin Jealous, president of the NAACP. He audibly laughed as if to say "I can't believe he just said 'colored.' " Yet, he said nothing in response before exchanging pleasantries.

If someone uses a term you are not comfortable with, simply correct the person and move right along. You might think that they should know better, but maybe they don't. Maybe they do but got tongue-tied. Often, my students will be in the middle of making a point and use the term "colored." I simply and calmly interject "you mean people of color" and let them continue with their comment.

Sometimes doing so immediately and non-confrontationally can ease the sting of correction. I've found it works better than waiting until they are finished. Then, commenting only on the terms they used rather than the larger idea they were attempting to get across seems to leave them feeling judged, deflated and less likely to speak up in the future.

In a society where terms are ever changing, we have to be prepared for the imperfections of language to trip us up rather than be surprised when they do. That's the personal charge. And then we have to help each other and be willing to engage in a spirit of supportive correction rather than letting someone continue along and offend the next person or quite simply embarrass themselves.

Kira Hudson Banks (left), PhD., is assistant professor of psychology at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington. The native of Edwardsville is a regular contributor to the Beacon.