Tongue tied with language

August 16, 2011

I was talking with a student the other day who was trying to decide whether to risk talking to someone in power.  He was worried about the impact of his actions and any repercussions that might occur. Several times I found myself ready to say something and had to pull myself back.

What naturally came to mind to say was the following:

You are worried you might get blackballed or

You think you will be blacklisted or

You don’t want a black mark against you.

All of these came close to coming out of my mouth but I stopped them as I looked at his dark skin and wondered, as a black man, how these words would sound to him.  Negative black words.  They live in our everyday language in abundance.

It would be easy to say these are just words with commonly accepted meanings; particularly easy for white people for whom these classifications have been normalized.

I imagine what it would be like to have a friend say to me, “Oh, you will be whitelisted” or “That may be a white mark against you.”  Since “white” has been given such positive connotations in our language, it would be a different impact.

Blackballing came from the tradition of a secret ballet and signifies a rejection. People casting a white ball, while voting, signified support. A black ball signified opposition.

Words matter. It’s worth the effort to find language that does not have cultural biases hidden in it. It’s not just our tongue that gets tied with language; our whole way of seeing the world can get bound up and restricted.

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