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Call Me, Tweet Me: The inherent racism of language: ignorant, but not necessarily ideological

Published: November 18, 2011
Section: Opinions, Top Stories


“Do they make nude pantyhose for black people? Or do you just have to buy black?”

Not one of my finer moments.

A friend of mine is shopping for clothes from American Apparel during lunch and she was debating whether to get one of her choices, their t-shirt leotard, in black or nude, with the intention of wearing it under dresses or loose shirts. We agreed that she should get nude if she intends to wear it under other clothes, and then, I’m embarrassed to admit, I had a realization that should have happened a long time ago.

I turned to the other girl who was part of our conversation, a proud young black woman with African roots, Rasheedat Azeez ’13. I looked her up and down and asked something that sounded pretty ignorant. Luckily she’s used to my saying dumb stuff and she laughed about it, answering immediately.

Apparently, light-skinned people of color can get away with the darkest shade of pantyhose, but ebony women like Rasheedat have to go with black and hope it doesn’t clash with a navy or brown dress.

I hadn’t really thought about the word “nude,” in its colloquial meaning of light tan, as a racist term since I’d come across Crayola’s version of “flesh”: the color that, I learned after some research, was renamed “peach” in 1962. Now, Crayola has expanded with their “multicultural” set: a range of flesh colors that spans the globe—multicultural might be a little more PC than they intended, but whatever.

Anyway, I vividly remember a deeply insightful and mature (considering that I was probably only seven or eight at the time) conversation with my mother when I found “flesh” in a nearly-antique box of crayons but since then I haven’t thought about the racial undertones of that crayon.

In the 1980s, acclaimed feminist and anti-racism activist Peggy McIntosh wrote a paper about white privilege and male privilege. McIntosh, then the associate director of the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, highlights the inherent racism and sexism in society that often goes unnoticed by the “privileged” groups: whites and males. She writes that she “was taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring dominance on my group.”

Those invisible systems, however, do exist. She lists advantages afforded to both whites and men, many of which are unnoticeable to those who have them. Whites can easily be “in the company of people of [their] own race most of the time,” they can “turn on the television or open the front page of the paper and see people of [their] race widely represented,” and they are “never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.”

She even lists such trivial differences as being able to “talk with my mouth full and not have people put this down to my color.”

Overall, McIntosh aims to argue that racism, unfortunately, is an inherent part of our culture and society, and not always a group of individuals expressing that race is a factor that makes people different and less worthy of society’s benefits.

Racism, though troubling, is less because of ideology and more because of ignorance. We—meaning the white majority and possibly including people of color who haven’t noticed—simply don’t realize the connotations of what we’re saying.

Every day, we use words with racial meanings. It took me a long time to realize that when I was saying I got “gypped” I was being insensitive toward Gypsies, who supposedly swindled customers. Then there was the time I had to explain to a high school classmate why I was offended when I tried to “jew” him.

Ignorance and consciousness are the keys to understanding, harmony and egalitarian communication. Be aware of the cultural contexts of what you’re saying, the etymologies and the connotations. Be aware of how you’re a privileged member of society and work to extend those privileges to others.

McIntosh’s article should be required reading for everyone. It truly opened my eyes about the world around me—and it’s probably not a coincidence that it was a class with her daughter, Janet McIntosh, that continued to open my eyes and in part inspired this column. Anthropology 26a, Communication and Media. Take it.