Author, ‘Black Queer Identity Matrix’ and ‘Black Comics: Politics of Race and Representation’; professor of communication studies, Rider University
The definition of “racism” is “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.” Individual racism, which includes but is not limited to actions, ideology and language, leads to institutional racism. Most Americans would adamantly reject the notion that they are in fact racist.
As a scholar and professor of intercultural and rhetorical communication, I study the intersections of language, action and ideology. These things are inextricably linked but not always explicitly discussed in tandem with one another. The interplay between language, action and ideology offers the missing piece in the analysis of these conversations that, in the age of “new” media, we’ve seen move from the private to the public sphere, such as the recent emails that have surfaced between film producer Scott Rudin and Sony Pictures Co-Chair Amy Pascal in which the two speculated that they should ask President Obama whether he likes movies such as Django Unchained,12 Years a Slave or The Butler.
The fact of the matter is that the media has a field day when high-profile executives and employees of high-profile companies are “outed” for making racist or prejudicial comments that move from the private to the public sphere. The attention to these stories rarely focuses on the actual problem with these moments, the actual ways in which language determines action and translates into hiring prejudice, firing prejudice, workplace exclusivity and institutional racism, among other things.
We all remember April 2014, when Donald Sterling, the then-owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, told his girlfriend, in a private phone conversation that went public, that he didn’t want her bringing black people to his games or posting pictures with black people on Instagram. These remarks were clearly racist, but the connection between Sterling’s language and the institutional racism in which he’s complicit was not made clear in the way that it needs to be. This connection reflects the reality that black people live with day in and day out, regardless of whether they work in a blue-collar job or a white-collar job.
Sterling has long had a reputation for perpetuating institutional racism. In addition to owning the Clippers for many years, he is a real estate mogul who, in 2005, settled a lawsuit that accused him of discriminating against black and Hispanic tenants at properties he owned. He paid a large sum of money in response to another housing-discrimination lawsuit a few years later.
In a statement released Thursday Pascal made claims that echo Sterling’s own self-defense following the furor over his racist comments, saying, “The content of my emails were insensitive and inappropriate but are not an accurate reflection of who I am.” But this defense, which essentially amounts to a pivot away from the significance of what those emails symbolize, is simply not enough. It does not excuse the magnitude of the prejudice on display in those emails, prejudice coming from a person who sits in a position of power in Hollywood, no less.
Throughout life we develop knowledge about different types of people, which shapes how we communicate with one other, how we think about others and how we treat others. When racist and prejudicial language such as this is used, we need to acknowledge that what we say and think absolutely influences our actions. These stereotypes and schemas that we carry with us create “crash moments” when interacting with different types of people. Crash moments look like José Zamorachanging his name to “Joe” on his résumé and suddenly getting an influx of interviews for jobs because his name no longer indicated a non-white ethnicity.
Crash moments also look like the following: When Officer Darren Wilson and Mike Brown met on the street, each party was operating on a set of assumptions about the other — and in many cases such assumptions are prejudices based on past experiences and/or environmental forces that govern our actions. At trial, Officer Wilson’s description of Brown’s face as looking “like a demon” following the initial discharge of Wilson’s gun inside his vehicle, and his description of Brown as later looking “like he was almost bulking up to run through the shots” that Wilson was firing at him, are impregnated with historical images of black males as “beasts” or “savages” that permeate our psyche and play into how we communicate with and about others.
Crash moments also look like Eric Garner displaying his frustration with white police officers “harass[ing]” him for no apparent reason. His past interactions with white police officers fueled and guided his response in that moment. These sorts of schemas, stereotypes and pseudo-impressions guide everyone, no matter your skin color.
This is not to say that Wilson, Sterling, Pascal or Rudin are racist (I am not here to make that judgment), but they all have used language that absolutely interplays with racist ideology and action. These things can in no way be separated from institutional practices and the treatment of people of color. Again, Sterling had a long history of discriminatory housing practices and has settled lawsuits alleging racial discrimination.
Linguistic scholar Kenneth Burke tells us that when we use language, we are also usedby it. Words set our actions, views and perspectives, which means people cannot see beyond what their words lead them to believe. Thus, language exerts a determining influence over us, an influence that we cannot always escape unless we are willing to acknowledge that racist jokes, prejudicial language and stereotypical acknowledgements will always cloud the ways we treat different types of people. Everyone, no matter their skin color, is a victim in this determinism. It is just more devastating for people of color, because people of color are often on the opposite side of those in power in a country in which white people hold the economic and structural reins of power. Therefore, when white people harbor prejudicial, racist or stereotypical assumptions, the effect disproportionately disadvantages people of color in a more devastating way — whether it be in hiring practices, firing practices, workplace exclusion, police brutality or the way the justice system works. Language does reflect the decisions, practices and actions that one makes, whether consciously or unconsciously.