Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Language and Privilege

I'm sure this happens more than I realize (I'm a well-educated, American, straight, white male after all), but two instances of racially charged language have cropped up in recent months that's gotten me thinking about how privilege applies to language.

The first was the leaked quote from Houston Texans owner, Bob McNair, during the NFL protest conversations. McNair said he didn't want "the inmates running the prison." Now, he says he was referring to the NFL office employees dictating policy and procedure to the owners - and, in light of all the detailed reporting by ESPN and others on those meetings, this was a huge bone of contention for the owners and I rightly believe him - however, in a room full of concerned black men, specifically protesting unfair treatment of the black community by police, the phrase itself carried incredible consequence.

The reality of the situation is that African-Americans, and black males in particular, are more likely to get arrested and convicted for actions than white people who do the same things. The sentences are longer and they're less likely to get parole. Skewed numbers exist for interactions with police as well. We've seen scientific proof that there's a cultural and societal bias against dark skin - even by those with dark skin. It's a race problem, but it's beyond even the differences between different groups of people. It's an all of us issue (and one that I've written about here as best I can).

For today, though, the point is that words matter. I can understand what McNair is trying to communicate. I've used that phrase a time or two as a synonym for getting the cart before the horse - to indicate that motivation and control are coming from the wrong places. I tend to say inmates running the asylum, but, honestly, that's just as insensitive. The reason, though, why I or Bob McNair or any other privileged white guy can see that phrase as innocuous is because it's not real for us. I know very few people who've been to prison and the possibility that I, myself, might end up on the wrong side of the law is just so incredibly improbable that it doesn't feel real.

That's just not true, for even the most well-bahved, law abiding man of color in the US. The numbers vary from 1 in 3 to 1 in 5, for the most part, but the odds of a black man in the US spending time in jail is astronomically high - and the stories of unfair or incorrect imprisonment are too common to be taken lightly.

My privilege allows me to use words as analogy that have real meaning to others who don't enjoy my privilege.

I was hoping McNair would use his incident to make a similar statement. Privilege is one of the most difficult concepts to talk about for those of us who have it. It's the most difficult thing to get across to people; it's at the root of the argument around the notion of "all lives matter." Honestly, the conversation around privilege is probably the one our nation needs before we can ever get to a place where real discussion of race can happen.

It bleeds over into the words we use. For people at the top of the social heap, words are just words. They have meaning, but usually just in a representative way. I can say inmates and prison without ever really putting a face, experience, or reality to those ideas. That's just not true for everyone and we've got an obligation to be aware and sensitive to those realities.

Bob McNair probably got a little bit too raked over the coals in learning this lesson, but I do hope he's genuinely learned one and understands his players better than he did before.

The other incident, though, is one that didn't get the same kind of press. A few weeks ago, the University of Tennessee was looking to hire a football coach - Greg Schiano was floated as a possibility (in fact, basically as the choice) - he ended up not getting the job because a lot of alums and fans protested his involvement with Penn State and the terrible child abuse and inaction (if not coverup) that happened there over a period of years.

We can argue about Schiano's real involvement in the process, but it came up in a deposition that a coach had heard from another coach that Schiano had reported child rape during his tenure on the football coaching staff at Penn State and did nothing when nothing was done. He's denied those allegations and there's an argument to be made about the real power a person in his position would've had to change anything - and also an argument to be made about whether that should matter in an instance where a child was being abused.

That's a conversation for another day. My concern was the repeated use of a phrase, "lynch mob," to describe the Tennessee fans who most vociferously opposed Schiano's hire. There were some words of caution, but largely those words went unnoticed.

I get it, from one perspective, if the testimony is true, the guy did barely anything when he knew a child was being harmed, but there's a long way from third-hand allegations to proof or even criminal action. People have the right to make whatever judgments they want, but this one was quick and without a lot of support. That's where the lynch mob analogy makes historical sense - lynch mobs killed black people, without trial, often for very petty reasons or none at all.

Again, though, only white people can use a phrase like that without context. Privilege allows us to say criticism of Schiano looks like the lawless murder of black men. Of course it's not meant literally, but aren't the differences between the two enough to avoid that phrase? For most of my life, I probably would've said (as many have), "Get over it, you're being too sensitive." It's a position privilege allows us to take.

When language is disconnected from our real experience, we fail to recognize it's power. It's not just a racial thing - how often does the word "rape" get used to describe destruction? We might save the word "holocaust" for something truly awful, but is it really as awful, appropriately awful for what we're describing?

I was substitute teaching in an 8th grade class the other day. In an overheard conversation where one African-American kid was talking to the student sitting next to him. He said, "Sometimes, when I get angry, I feel it deep down, like I'm all white inside." Maybe I'm giving him too much credit, but if it bothers you that white is associated with hatred or darkness, perhaps ask yourself why you're only thinking about it now.

(The answer is privilege.)

Words matter - and some words matter more to some people. It might not seem fair, but it's real. It's the price of privilege and it's not much of a price to pay.

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