I recently observed an uncomfortable exchange concerning a case study that was being reviewed in an academic setting. The discomfort didn’t stem from the delicate ethical considerations involved, but from the exchange that followed when a white person stated that the case’s subject was black.
The person wanted to acknowledge race appropriately. But clearly, like so many people discussing a topic that inevitably brings up themes of prejudice and bigotry, they were afraid they might do so in a way that offended. They were afraid they might employ the wrong language. And indeed, someone immediately said, “You can’t say black, you have to say African American.”
For issues of identity, in our effort not only to acknowledge difference but to celebrate it, we’re developing new language. As we seek to distance ourselves from the language that characterized oppressive and intolerant attitudes we’re saying to those who’ve been subjugated and marginalized, “Please tell us how to speak of you, on your terms and in your terms.”
But the language we employ to describe our evolving understanding of each other is often subtle, detailed, and specific - with the result that conversations around difference and acceptance, around frank acknowledgments of race, class, origin, and gender can become cluttered and dense to such a degree that they can feel impenetrable and impossible to navigate.
Discussions cease to be about the topic at hand, and instead become about the language being used to discuss the topic. The language becomes the topic, adding to the confusion and further complicating the debate it was developed to clarify. And if all parties are not equally fluent in the accepted language, instead of catalyzing these discussions, it can have the opposite effect, and scare us away from conversations we might finally be willing to have - for fear of reprimand, or of saying the wrong thing.
Since we badly need to talk to - and talk about - each other, we can’t afford to let the intricacies of our new language prevent us from engaging - while remembering that how we say something is an essential part of what we are saying.
In other words: meaning lives both in the assemblage of words, and in the individual words themselves.