Using language as a means to compartmentalize
There are over a million words that make up the English language. Each word has its own definition that provides context to what it means. And while a word’s denotation provides this standard dictionary definition, it is the connotation that gives a word its implied meaning. In some instances, words serve as labels — a way to categorize particular groups of people into a neat box.
While certain terms act as a labeling mechanism for various societal groups, their connotations stem beyond simply naming a collective group of people. The usage of certain terms over other terms is its own political statement. In some cases, these terms can perpetuate power dynamics, further strengthening feelings of superiority by the dominant group in society.
Sonja Lanehart, professor and brackenridge endowed chair in literature and the humanities at the University of Texas, specializes in sociolinguistics and African American language. She said people tend to naturally categorize things because of how it helps them make sense of the world. In addition to this, she said the dynamics of the “us versus them” mentality also contribute to the issue of labels.
“In ‘us’ versus ‘them,’ the us is a good category and then the them is a not necessarily good category,” Lanehart said. “And so I think there are, in addition to either categorization or identity issues, there are also issues of power dynamics that are involved.”
The use of the terms “black” and “African American” is an example of this categorization technique of labeling people, as these terms are used to refer to people with dark skin or Americans of African descent. The perceptual differences between these two terms further highlights the power dynamics in play when groups fall under certain labels, a fact that is highlighted in a 2015 study, “A rose by any other name?: The consequences of subtyping ‘African-Americans’ from ‘Blacks’” conducted by Erika Hall, assistant professor of organization and management at Emory University.
Researchers in the study conducted multiple experiments testing how terms like black and African American were perceived. In one experiment, using résumés as a basis of comparison, the research study ultimately found the term black is viewed more negatively than the term African American. Hall said she and other researchers found people who used the label black were perceived as having a lower socioeconomic status, being less competent and even having colder personalities than people referred to as African American.
“So essentially we had résumés that were equal on every other dimension except that they said that this person was black or African American,” she said. “And we found that the person made significantly less when he was labeled as black as opposed to African American — people thought he was lower status and he was less likely to be in a managerial position.”
Hall said one potential explanation for the disparities between how the two terms are perceived are the inherent political undertones of the words. In looking at the results of the study, Hall said certain words retain connotations to the time period they were born out of. She said terms like “Negro” and “colored” were used at a time of taut racial tension, and therefore carried those implications moving forward, making it difficult to remove them from their negative connotations.
“The word, it’s just a regular word, but if it comes out of a certain movement or a certain time period, then the rhetoric around that time period kind of stays with the word,” she said.
Benét Wilson, vice president of education for the National Association of Black Journalists’ Digital Journalism Task Force, said the difference in perception between black and African American may have something to do with acknowledging a person’s ethnic heritage.
“I think that there might be a perception that … if you’re African American that’s acknowledging that you are of African descent that you have a history and a past, whereas black is very generic, it’s a cover, it’s an ethnicity, but it doesn’t always say exactly who you are and where you’re from,” she said.
In a Salon article from March, 2015 titled “It’s the Blackness that scares everybody”: Why white people favor ‘African-Americans,’” author Brittany Cooper discusses the results of Hall’s study and what the term black means to her. She wrote using the African American label makes black people feel “safer” to white people.
“Perhaps adoption of [the African American] moniker signals that we are willing to fall into step and into line with what America says about us,” Cooper wrote. “Perhaps Blackness really does conjure visions of insurrectionary dark-skinned people ready to revolt against the violent machinations of whiteness.”
According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the term black has been used to refer to people of African descent since the 1600s. Then in the 1960s, according to the book, “From Negro to Black to African American: The Power of Names and Naming,” by author Ben L. Martin, associate professor emeritus of political science at the University of Missouri Kansas City, black was reclaimed during the Black Power Movement — led by the Black Panthers — as well as the Black is Beautiful movement.
Wilson sees the progression in the terms of reference to describe black people in her own family’s birth certificates — her grandfather’s and her father’s birth certificates say “colored,” her own certificate reads “Negro” and her daughter’s has the term “black.” She said this evolution in what terms are deemed acceptable at the time — and the movement from “colored to “Negro” to the reclamation of “black” — was strengthened by the Civil Rights Movement.
“We were fighting for respectability, we were fighting to get rid of Jim Crow laws, we were fighting to have people stop calling us ‘nigger,’ we were fighting to have the same respectability that any citizen of the United States that wasn’t black got, so I think that was the line of demarcation,” Wilson said. “And people felt stronger about asserting their black identity.”
In contrast, the term African American is a relatively recent one. According to Martin’s book, it was formally introduced in December 1988 at a news conference in Chicago’s Hyatt Regency O’Hare Hotel by civil rights activist Jesse Jackson as the term preferred by members of the black community to express a sense of ethnic identity.
“He essentially said, ‘What I wanna do is I want us to be on an equal playing field with white because I want us to have heritage, I want us to feel confident in ourselves and I want us to have higher socioeconomic status,’” Hall said. “He was also a person who was of higher socioeconomic status.”
This may be one explanation of why whites perceive blacks as having a lower socioeconomic status compared to African Americans. Because black was a term of reference that has existed over time, for white people it may continue to carry implications of inferiority related to socioeconomic status. The introduction of African American in 1988 and the proposal for a more ethnic reference similar to Italian American or Irish American may have been regarded as more politically respectable and acceptable by White America.
In addition to labels of African American and black, the debate over immigration is another example of discrepancies with terms of reference, where terms like “illegal immigrant” and “illegal alien” are becoming regarded as highly offensive phrases that should be avoided. Lanehart said shorthand terms like “illegal” and “alien” harbor negative connotations toward U.S. non-citizens.
“We don’t have a citizenship status that’s called illegal alien, and when we think about alien, the connotations for alien have to do with space, those sort of things, and that’s not what we’re talking about,” Lanehart said. “We’re talking about people who have an undocumented status based upon laws that we have about who’s a citizen and who’s not.”
One of the largest perpetrators of the term illegal immigrant is the media. In fact, according to a 2013 Pew Research Study on the shifting language regarding immigration in the media, the term illegal immigrant remained the most used phrase by news organizations when discussing immigration.
Researchers compared newspapers from April 15-29, 2013 with three other two-week periods in 1996, 2002 and 2007. In each time period examined, illegal immigrant was the term most often used by newspapers when writing about immigration. In the study, the term illegal immigrant was used 49 percent of the time, whereas a less offensive term like “undocumented immigrant” was used only 14 percent of the time.
News organizations have been slow in banning the use of the term illegal immigrant from the language they use, but progress is gradually being made. According to the “Illegal Index” by online media website Fusion, which shows the news organizations that continue using the term “illegal immigrant,” 12 organizations have banned the use of the term illegal immigrant, including outlets like Vox, NBC, The Los Angeles Times and The Associated Press. And while The New York Times has not explicitly banned the term illegal immigrant, it strongly urges its reporters to use alternative phrases. In contrast, The Wall Street Journal and Reuters prefer to use the term illegal immigrant in their articles.
Although there is a lack of diversity in the newsroom — with just 12.37 percent of the overall newsroom population made up of minorities, according to a 2013 census by the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit school of journalism in Florida — Wilson said news outlets have the responsibility to look at style guides by organizations like the National Association of Black Journalists to make sure they are being culturally conscious.
“They need to take the steps to make sure they are sensitive to the audiences that they’re writing to, not just the white audiences but all audiences,” she said.
There is a purpose for the language people use, Lanehart said, and the language used in news stories has implications that media outlets and journalists must be aware of.
“The adjectives that you use provide a particular impression,” she said. “Your sentence construction, whether it’s a passive or an active sentence, those all have implications for meaning beyond just the syntax. There’s a semantic, a pragmatic meaning that comes across in those sorts of things and so you have to be cognizant of them.”
Within the realm of politics, Lanehart said dog-whistle politics, which uses coded language to implicate a particular societal group, could explain the decision to invoke certain terms over others. She said the choice to use certain terminology influences the way people picture members of marginalized communities by attempting to put forth a certain message.
“Everybody knows what you mean, but we don’t want to say it because then that’s too obvious, and we don’t want to talk about it,” she said. “Those are all of the things that are going on in terms of why in some cases, especially in political discourse, you would use certain terms over other terms.”
While society does not need to necessarily jump around hurdles in choosing which terms and words to use, Hall said the subtle messages must be taken out of these labels.
“We need to know that these words are kind of charged with these implicit undertones and try our best to use them in our rhetoric in a very positive way so we can change the implicit meanings that are encoded in them,” she said.
Celisa Calacal is a sophomore journalism major who knows 999,999 words — no, but really. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.