In another blog, I have discussed some of my experiences as a PhD student in the school of social work at Indiana University. One post in that blog describes various harassing behaviors by a student whom I have called Gladys. Gladys was a white female PhD student who had majored in women’s studies as an undergraduate, and who has since become an instructor in a school of social work. On one occasion, she said something about race that seemed interesting and also troubling. This post discusses her remark and related matters.
(Please pardon the insertion, here, of a cartoon that I encountered after writing this post. It does not say exactly what this post says, but does evoke some related thoughts.)
On the occasion in question, Gladys and I were arguing about whether she had a right to tell me what words I was permitted to use. Our argument began in the area of gender, but somehow we came around to the topic of black people. She believed that black people had a right to tell me how to refer to them. In her view, if I failed to use the terms that black people preferred, I had a good chance of getting a beating.
This was a remarkable sentiment. It seemed to me that, in the name of standing against racism, Gladys was actually perpetuating it. And as suggested in other posts, that is exactly what one might expect from people who are not genuinely concerned about racism (or, for that matter, sexism or other forms of discrimination), but who are rather simply parroting dogma that they have acquired, in the process of learning how to act as if they were not discriminatory.
Gladys did have a point. There is a widespread impression, reinforced by black and nonblack people alike, that a white man who uses the so-called “n-word” is at fair risk of being beaten by any black man who happens to overhear it. She was simply stating what she and I had both heard and accepted. And for two people who expected to become professors of social work, that was pretty interesting. I don’t know whether black people are, in fact, more likely to attack people who utter racial slurs, than are the people of any other race. That sort of question has apparently been studied, but my social work education did not require familiarity with that literature.
On one hand, I am not certain that such beatings actually do occur with exceptional frequency. There are all sorts of poses and pretenses in this world. A black woman on the New York City subway once came up to me, muttering to herself. I couldn’t make out what she was saying, but it seemed like her words might be directed toward me, and I could see that other passengers nearby seemed uncomfortable. I think those passengers included whites and blacks alike. Then, after a moment, I did overhear the woman use the word “peckerwood” – which was actually kind of funny, if you think about my surname. What was on her mind, I do not know. I just moved away. And that is probably what most black adults would do – at, say, a suburban mall – if some white punk called them niggers.
But on the other hand, the black community has not done a great job with its public image in this area. It’s not just that a person could get the impression that half of America’s black people are eagerly awaiting a chance to pop you for using the n-word. There has been, I think, an abuse of the privilege Gladys was referring to – a track record of verbal aggression, that is, where some percentage of the black population has claimed a right to be offended by a variety of terms. It’s not just “nigger.” A white person who uses the word “Negro” has long been likely to be treated like an idiot at best, by politically correct whites and blacks alike – even though large numbers of blacks have identified themselves as exactly that. Indeed, according to the APA (as distinct from ASA) manual used by many American scholars, it is improper to refer to “blacks”; one must rather capitalize the term, “Blacks,” as if we were also required to capitalize “Gays” and “Men” and “People With Disabilities.” A white person generally has no way of knowing whether a particular black person would prefer to be called “African-American” (or, to add to the confusion, “African American,” sans hyphen). It became offensive to refer to “colored people” – and then it became OK to refer to “people of color.” White people were even threatened for using the word “niggardly,” which has rarely if ever had anything to do with race.
The point is not that this is all completely ridiculous. There may be good reasons for every one of those controversies; and even if there aren’t, there are surely emotions behind them. The point is that it is confusing, and most people (including many blacks, apparently) are not going to get into it. You have to be an insider to understand the lingo and the reasons for it, and most of us aren’t, and won’t.
Let me illustrate. When I went to Columbia College in the 1970s, I discovered that there were many communist philosophies in this world. There were followers of Marx, followers of Lenin, followers of Trotsky, disciples of Che Guevara and Ho Chi Minh, readers of Mao’s Little Red Book. And you know what? I couldn’t care less. And that seems to have been OK. Most of that stuff just went away, from my own personal world and eventually from the world at large. Ironically, I have belatedly come to appreciate some of those differences. But it was better for me to do so on my own timetable, when those issues mattered to me personally, than to have somebody shove it down my throat, when there was a real prospect that they were not, after all, speaking even for substantial numbers of their own kind.
So, to summarize, there seemed to be several strange implications in what Gladys said:
- She was claiming to have the knowledge as to how I should speak, and a right to tell me how to speak, whereas my own exposure to and learning about various races and cultures did not persuade me that she had that sort of knowledge or right.
- She and I were more or less assuming that black people would beat me up if I used the wrong word. I don’t think she held, and I know I don’t hold, any similar assumption regarding people of any other race, ethnicity, or religion. Yes, there are always hotheads, but nothing extending across an entire race or other grouping. The nearest similar phenomenon may be that some Muslims have created a general impression, in the West, of violent overreaction to depictions of Mohammed. Given the common American association of violent Islam with terrorism, that parallel is hardly flattering to black people.
- American blacks have positioned themselves – or have been positioned, with the overeager assistance of white academics in fields like social work – as hypersensitive to nuances of terminology.
The problem with those impressions of censorship, violent overreaction, and hypersensitivity is that, as just suggested, they leave most people cold. It’s not that the opinion of “most people” is necessarily dispositive. But it is also not completely crazy to point out that a marketing expert, brought in to advise on the project of improving the public image of American blacks, would probably not advise them to (a) dilute their message across a plethora of brand names, (b) insist that each of those names had to be understood, and (c) position themselves as sharply hostile to and/or critical of the average nonblack American’s efforts to discuss and work with various terms and concepts.
Again, an illustration may help. There is a popular video, “Shit White Girls Say to Black Girls.” To me, it is more entertaining than the original “Shit Girls Say” that spawned it and a host of other parodies. My reading of the creator’s comments suggest that she intended it, not exactly as parody, but as a reaction to things that white people have actually said and done, when trying to communicate or get along with her. In my interpretation, she is saying that we should not be so clueless, but she is not ranting or otherwise overreacting. I’m not sure that everything I say and do would meet with her approval. I’m also not sure that everything I say and do requires her approval. But at the end of the day, it seems that we would probably be able to get along.
Unfortunately, as I have learned from hard experience, social work academia does not tend to be similarly minded – to seek positions, and forms of expression, that allow for some acceptance of others who hold divergent perspectives. Schools of social work do not tend to seek dialogue with dissenters. They tend to model the lecture-and-harangue approach rather than an ask-and-listen style.
For purposes of black males, especially, this makes social workers dangerous — it makes them likely, that is, to give dangerous advice. Black American males face a disproportionate likelihood of being charged and convicted regardless of guilt. Some universities, schools of social work, and other entities exacerbate that problem by requiring applicants to disclose every instance in which they have even been charged with a crime, regardless of whether they were convicted. In such an environment, it seems irresponsible for a white female social work academic to give any support to the belief that it is understandable if black men beat the crap out of white people who use the wrong word. In reality, such behavior is not likely to be understood by judges and other people in power. Those who take such social worker cues may suffer consequences for the rest of their lives — and so may their victims.
Thanks to my social work education, it feels risky to express such thoughts. My social work training taught Gladys and me that people who are not like me – black people, in particular – will freak out, and have a right to freak out, if I do not use the terms that they think I should use. In a different illustration, I was taught that it is better for a male student to sit in silence, throughout an entire three-hour class session on feminism, than to venture a thought that might not be politically acceptable. Such a belief does, indeed, conform to the middle-class suburban remoteness from which many social work faculty hail. But that is no way to learn and progress in mutual understanding – and social work faculty would know this, if they had been obliged, all along, to work with a spectrum of viewpoints, rather than parochially reiterating their pet beliefs to likeminded colleagues. What I learned, in that three-hour session on feminism, was a microcosm of SW academia’s fundamentally conservative resistance to variety among people: as a group, social work academics have similarly sat in passive absorption of reasonable and outlandish claims alike, learning what someone else wants them to echo rather than actively engaging with it and interpreting it for themselves. It feels risky for me to engage in this sort of inquiry because, in this profession, I appear to be rather alone in it.
In the pursuit of genuine social work, it seems, a professor worthy of the title must grapple with linguistic claims, rather than unquestioningly swallowing them whole. The fact that such a claim is raised by someone with a personal stake in the matter is not dispositive; we may all eventually have a personal stake in it. Its proponent may just be trying it out; s/he may benefit from some testing and questioning of the proposed concept or phrasing. Best results are not likely to follow when, as is presently the case, white people typically avoid matters involving black people because it is not important enough, for them, to risk being attacked for, verbally or otherwise. Reaching disengaged white people may be more feasible if engaged white people (e.g., professors attempting genuine social work) reject the idea that skin color entitles anyone to control a dialogue. That, I think, was the fundamental point on which Gladys and I disagreed.