For compellingly good reasons, our entire world is now witnessing, or participating in, such an unprecedented outpouring of deep feeling, anguish and concern, even rage, that only the very privileged, the very callous, or the very insensitive, could dismiss or disregard this outpouring.
These are momentous times, dealing with life and death matters. They require of us studied, soul-searching involvement. There’s simply no room for dispassionate spectating. Just looking on is not a good option, some would say it’s a tragic option.
To that end, I invite you to reflect with me on just one easily overlooked aspect of a much larger critical and complex issue, that of institutional prejudice. Institutional prejudice, arguably, has racial prejudice or racism, and all that that entails, as its most virulent manifestation.
In what follows, I am considering just one of its aspects because this larger issue has so many layers and faces that to treat of it adequately would require, among other things, vastly more time and book space than can be sufficiently addressed in any brief discussion. Some instructive gesturing will have to suffice.
That one aspect I single out for our reflection has to do with language itself, it being the most foundational of human institutions, for within it we live and move and have our being, and play all our subtle and not-so-subtle life games.
Hence, when I speak here of institutional prejudice, I have in mind all infrastructural or systemic inequities or prejudices which those with the relevant power formulate, formalize and preserve in public and private institutions.
Once embedded, they have the effect of advantaging some and disadvantaging others, others being those humans whom the power brokers, past and present, consider not sufficiently like them in the ways they demarcate. In the most crucial of those games, before the game even begins, certain coded markers, patently or in self-serving social fine print, determine who the real winners will be, and who the real losers will be.
Accordingly, pit black person against white person, and the entries on the scoreboard are predictable. Black loses! It’s a no-brainer! And that game has been going on, and on, and on, for centuries. This kind of scoring captures something of the unrelenting spirit motivating the present worldwide unrest, for it addresses the humanity we unequally share head on.
And now for some pointed but instructive gesturing. Enabled by language, we see things, label, codify and classify them to meet our vast and varied needs and interests.
In so doing, we have it within our power in our social engagements to weaponize or politicize certain labels we come up with. True, and necessarily so, you and I inherit the wonderful languages we speak, complete with all their vagaries and subtleties.
But we diminish ourselves, if we content ourselves with being merely unreflective or complacent users of what we inherit. At the very least, we do well to look out for labels, or linguistic packages and arrangements that we daily utilize but which under close examination are discovered to carry with them more freight than we intend. We need at times to monitor the feelings they evoke in us and the actions they motivate.
We need to bear in mind that labeling and packaging, while useful at times, tend to create realities all their own, realities that linger, and which on reflection we may not want to align ourselves with. Great social mischief, can and does result when we inappropriately opt for the easy and convenient short route of labeling, and its ilk, over tedious and lengthy critical engagement. The good life we all strive for requires the latter and depends on it.
In what follows I am, using current techno speak, going to pull a folder of mine from a few decades ago, and assign it the file name “Minority 101.” The story which the file recounts, though brief, is very tellingly instructive, especially as we ponder and try to explore the not-so- hidden bases or motivations of the present unrest.
File Reads: As part of the discussion today in this course, a graduate level course, one student in addressing a much larger subject, referred to minorities. The way in which he employed the term minority provoked a probing challenge by another student who inquired: “What about Jews, in this country?” The reply of the first student was brisk. “Jews are not a minority;” he said, “they are not lazy.” End of story.
So, for the first student, a term which, on the face of it, draws attention neutrally to numbers or proportions, had by acculturation become attributive, that is, qualitative.
For him, to belong to a minority was to possess one or more of a certain class of attributes or qualities with negative social value. Value neutrality and proportionality get taken over by judgmental attribution.
Put another way, to be classified as minority, according to that way of assessing things, is to be viewed as being deficient in some way or ways with respect to some cluster of social desirables. This sense of the term minority, as understood by the first student before his educational conversion is, regretfully, very much alive and well today.
Indeed, that sense has become the default sense in some of the high stakes language games we play today. Without much delving, one notices that the term minority is hardly ever used as an explicitly commending term.
It’s a term for the other. Not only is it not a commending term but it often gets highlighted by dismissive rhetorical flourishes or inflections whose negative point is hard to miss.
So when in our typical conversations we speak of minorities, what’s the imagery conjured up? Let’s do some homework on that question.
Let’s now take notice of a couple high currency notions: Black and African American. These made the short list.
I’m black, visibly black, but I do not answer to being African American. For one thing, the designation reads like a shock-absorbing euphemism, a bit of white graffiti! For another, my white South African friend and neighbor, who is also American, is not normatively considered African American. Well, why not? How do I explain this anomaly to my grandchildren who have very scrutinizing eyes and ears? Again, for reasons of space limitation, I must here and now settle for gesturing. But gesturing will not now work for them. Truth-telling on the subject requires integrity and honesty. In that pursuit, linguistic dodges get easily exposed, and that’s good news. History and ethical inquiry can change us all. Education in its finest sense will serve us well. Indeed, it’s the very best there is.
I conclude this incomplete reflection with a couple observations.
Once we know what’s going on around us and in our psyche, we can, in however small a way, do something remedially significant about what we see as unquestionably wrong. We can change the way we ourselves think and talk about people, about how we ourselves see, and act towards the great variety of fellow humans. More than that, we can try in small ways to open the eyes and ears of those closest to us. All this will take time, diligence, goodwill and truth- telling. Our finitude limits us but does not incapacitate us.