The U.S. Supreme Court has made its decision. Race cannot be a factor in deciding how schools select which students may or may not attend. It is not really a reversal of Brown v. Board of Education, but it brings up an important point of language and our national attitude toward being an American.
Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., writing for the majority, said, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” Though the liberal (in which I claim membership) and the black communities fervently disagree with the decision, Justice Roberts may have opened a door to a new road to racial equality in our multiracial society.
I teach the class college students love to hate, Public Speaking. The class is more than giving a speech; it is a study of people. Students learn about themselves and others, ethics, the art of persuasion and argument, politics and language. There is no attempt to create a single “American” sound because there is no “typical American sound.” Even “American” in the middle of Middle America varies depending on if you live in the city or a farm.
We discuss the First Amendment’s recognition of the Freedom of Speech, name calling and labeling, intent versus perception and the derogatory language used for ethnicity, race, religion and heritage. We even discuss the “N” word and its origins. Knowledge is power over the insult.
Students learn that our descriptive language may also be harmful to the American psyche. Our descriptive language identifies our citizens first by heritage, religion, race or ethnicity before we identify our common citizenship, creating a society of “Us” versus “Them.”
I resent being called “white.” Someone in my church recognized that our congregation is, almost without exception, of European decent, in his words, “white.” I immediately rejected that comment and called to the congregation “I’m beige!” There was lot of nervous laughter but no one disagreed. We are all people of color. We may be Americans of many generations or newly minted, but Americans all the same. We are also all various tones of brown, not black or white. Language creates this false dichotomy.
Allow me to take this one step further. I am not a Jewish-American, a Euro-American, or a Polish-American. I am an American, who is Jewish by tradition, whose grandparents emigrated from Eastern Europe, Poland. People with darker skin pigmentation are not African-Americans or Latin Americans, but Americans of mixed heritage, including European, aboriginal American (also immigrants) and African.
I argue that language does not cause hatred and segregation; it is the need to blame one’s misfortune or misguided acts on others. Someone must be at fault and it cannot be me, so it must be them, thus relinquishing our troubles and misfortunes to anyone who looks different, sounds different, believes different or acts different. Yet, we are all part of the American soul, a soul born of immigrants.
We are not a homogenous nation. Please tell me what an American looks like, sounds like or believes. You cannot, so why do we expect everyone to look, sound and believe like us when we cannot define “Us”?
I recognize that Americans, like many other nationalities, have discriminated because of race and ethnicity from the beginning of history, permanently imprinting an “us versus them” mentality. We know discrimination for any reason is wrong. Americans recognize that discrimination is unethical and immoral, and our great society has and is trying to make amends. Period.
I suggest that we stop identifying people by race, religion, gender and creed first. We need to recognize that we are all human. We must stop creating evil through language, walls of separation, blame and hatred. We are all born human first, Americans second. Adding other labels that create the false dichotomy of hatred are added because we are unwilling or unable to accept our own frailties. We need to point to ourselves before pointing at others.
David Rosman is a business and political communications consultant, professional speaker and instructor at Columbia College. He welcomes your comments at ProfDave1011@netscape.net.