McWhorter: Trying to Prove You’re Not a Racist

Useful overview by McWhorter of his sensible views. From a Canadian perspective, some of the issues that he flags also have relevance with respect to Indigenous peoples:

Since I started writing this newsletter, once about every couple of weeks I have received a missive from someone troubled by a controversy involving race, usually in the workplace.

These readers feel that their opponents in these fusses are unfairly tarring them as racist. Typical disputes they find themselves embroiled in include whether a school program should devote itself centrally to antiracism, whether it is fair to hire people ranking skin color over qualifications, whether reparations for slavery in a local context are appropriate and what they should consist of, and whether a piece of art should be deemed racist.

They seek my confirmation that they are in the right, that they are not racist, and presumably want to take that judgment back to the ring as proof that their position is not anti-Black. Sometimes they are under the impression that it would help if I addressed their colleagues over Zoom.

It has occurred to me that I should provide, in this space, an all-purpose response to this kind of letter I get. For starters, I’d like to offer a guide to my positions on the debates my correspondents seem to find themselves in.

To wit:

I do not support treating the word “Negro,” as opposed to the “N-word,” as a slur. “Negro” was not a slur when it was current, and the case for classifying it as one now because it is archaic is quite thin. Why look for something to be offended by?

I do not support calling something “racist” because outcomes for it differ for the (Black) race. For example, I take issue with the idea that there is something “racist” or “biased” about the questions on the SAT.

I do not condemn white authors writing Black fictional characters who speak Black English so long as it’s a respectful and realistic rendition.

I think the idea that it is cultural appropriation when whites take on Black cultural traits is ahistoric — human groups sharing space have always shared culture — and also pointless, given that Black American culture has always, and will continue to, infuse mainstream America. I also do not think arguments about power relations somehow invalidate my position. I think that it is in vain to decree that culture cannot be borrowed by people in power from those who are not.

I think the idea that only Black people should depict Black people in art and fiction is less antiracist than anti-human, in forbidding the empathy and even admiration that can motivate respectful attempts to create a literary character.

I revile any concept of equity that allows for appointing Black people to positions over more highly qualified non-Black ones.

I know that racism exists both on the personal and structural levels. But I also feel deep disappointment that the tenor of our times seems to encourage some Black people to exaggerate racism’s effects, to enshrine a kind of charismatic defeatism as a substitute for activism. And then there are those who outright fabricate having suffered racist mistreatment. I also worry that these kinds of things desensitize many observers from acknowledging the real racism that exists.

I think reparations are important — and happened already, decades ago with the Great Society, affirmative action, the expansion of welfare benefits in the late 1960s and the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977, which encouraged banks to extend credit in low-income neighborhoods. I would not stand implacably opposed to new reparations today in the form of various kinds or even cash payments but am highly skeptical that a critical mass of Black commentators would accept them as true compensation. I can’t help thinking the race debate would stay where it is now.

condemn notions that there are white ways of thinking (such as being precise and stressing individualism) and Black ones (such as being intuitive and stressing the communal), such that Black people resisting “assimilation” is taken as a kind of higher wisdom. That vision of Blackness would birth no useful inventions, yield only the occasional out-of-the-box insight and is alarmingly close to tacky, Dionysian depictions of Blackness, such as those in Norman Mailer’s “The White Negro.”

I consider it anti-intellectual performance art to retool educational institutions as antiracist academies that “center” the discussion of discrimination and other abuses of power in the instruction of all subjects.

Now that I’ve laid out a primer on my opinions, people who write me seeking support should keep in mind that quite a few Black people consider my stances on race to be a revolting kind of heresy.

Rather, as I have learned in my now lengthy experience with this kind of criticism, it’s that those who disagree with me feel — or perhaps have been taught to feel — that opinions like mine amount to giving white people a pass on racism, that they distract whites from engaging in the kind of thinking and activity that will help Black America. As such, they do not think of people like me as having opinions different from theirs but legitimate. They think opinions like mine are dangerous. I can imagine that to my critics, white people writing me for counsel is exactly what Black America doesn’t need. I am basing this on 25 years of receiving this kind of critique from various directions.

To witness a demonstration of the vigor and tone of this sentiment, please see the negative reactions that are sure to be part of the social media response to this newsletter — from people of all races. No Zoom talk could even begin to cut through such heated resistance.

Be under no illusion, then, that telling your colleagues my opinion about a race issue will be received by them as emanating from some kind of guru. You may suppose that it will be effective to say, “See? There are Black people who feel the way I do.” But to some of your opponents, those Black people may be seen as not just a different kind, but a wrong kind.

If people who don’t see race things my way continue to call you names and get in your way, you have my full sympathy. (And an overprivileged college professor like me isn’t the only one who would come to your defense. “Unwoke” views on race are quite common among Black people of all levels of education.)

But I consider myself engaged in a gradual process of — I hope — shaping our general consciousness on race via constant argument over decades of time. This is a long-game business. Views change slowly, incrementally, and writing is part of making it happen.

If you choose to present my take on race issues amid tense occasions anyway, you should understand that the issue is less my opinion than what you intend to do amid the response to it. My dear correspondents: Please know that it will require a degree of intestinal fortitude to withstand your opponents’ calling you a racist for agreeing with me. Know also, though, that if you’re up for that, you are joining me in that work I am committed to.

Source: Trying to Prove You’re Not a Racist

McWhorter: Proving Racists Wrong Is Not a Trivial Pursuit

McWhorter always worth reading:

To be a “heterodox” Black thinker on race is to be often accused of claiming that racism is extinct or doesn’t matter. For example, when he reviewed my book “Woke Racism” for The Washington Post, The Nation’s Elie Mystal described it as “a pleasing bedtime story to a certain kind of white person who is always looking for a magic Black person to tell them what they want to hear.”

But I’ve never said racism is defunct. I don’t think so now, and I didn’t think so back when I was a graduate student in the late ’80s and early ’90s. One semester, I decided to try my hand at a campus College Bowl-style competition. It was a quiz contest, questioning people on facts, lore — trivia.

Potential teammates gathered in a room, mostly unknown to one another until that day. We all crowded in, and I couldn’t help noticing that within about 60 seconds, the natural mixing process led to all the guys (there weren’t any women in that particular cluster) huddling over to one side to start forming teams — and excluding me and only me.

Yes, they were all white, and I was the only Black guy there.

But I’m not especially inept socially. It was pretty clear to me that the reason I was so baldly excluded was that they had quietly assumed that a Black guy wouldn’t know enough obscure information. That a Black guy wouldn’t be a nerd.

So I went, all hurt, to the campus diversity coordinator? I left, feeling “unwelcome”? I’m afraid not.

The reason I showed up at that event is because I knew I had something to offer when it came to knowing useless facts, thank you very much. And I figured that if those guys concluded otherwise because I’m Black, then as a bonus I could make a small contribution to our civic fabric, laying down one brick in a big wall of a case by showing them that in fact, you can both be Black and know some obscure things for no particular reason. Plenty of Black people do, after all.

Almost as if scripted, the question I was first given when called upon was about old-time musical theater. As readers of this newsletter know, that’s one of my favorite subjects, and I gave the correct answer. Those white guys saw something different from what they would have expected, and you could almost see it from their reaction. Mission accomplished; life went on.

My point isn’t that this trivial episode was somehow on a par with integrating a lunch counter in the segregated South, believe me. But it’s what comes to mind, from my own experience, when I worry that our era teaches us that racism is more interesting than achievement, that calling people out is more useful than proving them wrong. Last week, I explored the idea that the supposedly progressive approach to a standardized test with a disparate pass rate is to eliminate it. Related are ideas such as that antiracism means not requiring classics majors to learn Latin or Greek, or that the very idea of remedial education or the term “remediation” might be racist.

I will never embrace that perspective. Underestimation must be countered with demonstration, not indignation. If people stereotype me, what I want to do is show them just how wrong they are, not protest that they engaged in stereotyping. An analogy: No one would be swayed by someone who, accused of, for example, infidelity, sobs “You’re mean!” and has no further answer.

Now, there are times when history has made it challenging for us to show what we are made of, unlike when I happened to know the answer to that little quiz question. But the ordinary, vital, self-loving response to such a problem is to step up and learn how to show ourselves at our best. Yep, it’s a kind of Black Tax — having to demonstrate your worth before people consider you their equal. But in response to a slight or a remark, just saying “You shouldn’t have said that” instead? It just leaves us looking weak.

Freeman Hrabowski is a Black mathematician who helped found, at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, the Meyerhoff Scholars Program. The program has been fostering and guiding students of color through the challenges of STEM fields and preparing them for academic research since the late 1980s. Many Black and Latino students face obstacles to high achievement in STEM subjects — and the Meyerhoff program is geared toward solving that problem. Students are closely mentored, live in the same dormitory during their first year, are shunted to summer internships and are strongly encouraged to work in groups. There are over a thousand alumni of the program, most of whom are Black or Latino. According to the Meyerhoff website, program alumni hold 385 Ph.D.s, including 71 joint M.D./Ph.D.s, and 155 M.D.s or D.O.s. I recommend reading “Beating the Odds: Raising Academically Successful African American Males” and “Overcoming the Odds: Raising Academically Successful African American Young Women,” both by Hrabowski and several co-authors.

Hrabowski is, to adopt a fashionable expression, doing the work. Others, however, strike me as more interested in the obstacles than in getting past them. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein is an accomplished Black physicist at the University of New Hampshire who has argued that the exclusion of Black women in her field is linked to her notion of “white empiricism.” Namely, “white empiricism is the phenomenon through which only white people (particularly white men) are read has having a fundamental capacity for objectivity and Black people (particularly Black women) are produced as an ontological other.” Prescod-Weinstein wants us to consider that “white epistemic claims about science — which are not rooted in empirical evidence — receive more credence and attention than Black women’s epistemic claims about their own lives.”

Her argument is rather involved, and sincere from what I can see. However, at the end of the day, I doubt we gain more from its approach than Hrabowski’s.

There’s room for questioning standards, of course. Not every undergraduate needs to master ancient Greek. It was good that years ago, the College Board was prompted to remove SAT questions with verbal analogies that assumed middle-class life as the default.

But the general theme should be that Black people can meet standards that other groups are meeting. The question shouldn’t be whether the standards themselves are appropriate. There will be skepticism, from some quarters, about our capabilities. But I see no Black pride in finding that skepticism — and the prejudice it entails — more interesting than countering it with actual achievement. What we are is what we have done, not what we have said.

Shelby Steele, whose classic, “The Content of Our Character: A New Vision of Race in America,” won a 1990 National Book Critics Circle Award, captured the essence of the matter in a 1989 essay. The increased opportunity of the post-civil rights era presented “a brutal proposition” to Black Americans: “If you’re not inferior, prove it.”

Black pride means, at the end of the day, proving it.

Source: Proving Racists Wrong Is Not a Trivial Pursuit

McWhorter: Lower Black and Latino Pass Rates Don’t Make a Test Racist

Needed nuance and greater sophistication in analysis:

The Association of Social Work Boards administers tests typically required for the licensure of social workers. Apparently, this amounts to a kind of racism that must be reckoned with.

There is a petition circulating saying just that, based on the claim that the association’s clinical exam is biased because from 2018 to 2021 84 percent of white test-takers passed it the first time while only 45 percent of Black test-takers and 65 percent of Latino test-takers did. “These numbers are grossly disproportionate and demonstrate a failure in the exam’s design,” the petition states, adding that an “assertion that the problem lies with test-takers only reinforces the racism inherent to the test.” The petitioners add that the exam is administered only in English and its questions are based on survey responses from a disproportionately white pool of social workers.

But the petition doesn’t sufficiently explain why that makes the test racist. We’re just supposed to accept that it is. The petitioners want states to eliminate requirements that social workers pass the association’s tests, leaving competence for licensure to be demonstrated through degree completion and a period of supervised work.

So: It’s wrong to use a test to evaluate someone’s qualifications to be a social worker? This begins to sound plausible only if you buy into the fashionable ideology of our moment, in which we’re encouraged to think it’s somehow antiracist to excuse Black and brown people from being measured by standardized testing. There have been comparable claims these days with regard to tests for math teachers in Ontario and state bar exams, and, in the past, on behalf of applicants to the New York City Fire Department.

One of the weirdest assertions in the petition is that the social work association “is suggesting that Black, Latine/Hispanic and Indigenous social workers, by virtue of their race, are less capable of passing standardized tests.” (The first-time pass rate for Indigenous test-takers was 63 percent; for those of Asian descent it was 72 percent.) But based on the numbers, it would appear some are, absent details of just how the test is racist.

If there were clear evidence of this, presumably the petitioners would have outlined it in order to make their case. But the petition doesn’t prove the exam’s design is fatally flawed and doesn’t show which test components are out of bounds. We must address this problem more constructively.

This will mean taking a deep breath and asking why it is that in various instances, Black and Latino test-takers disproportionately have trouble with standardized tests. The reason for the deep breath is the implication ever in the air on this subject: that if the test isn’t racist, then the results might suggest that they aren’t as smart as their white peers. That’s an artificially narrowed realm of choices, however. There is more to what shapes how people handle things like standardized tests.

Broadly speaking, standardized testing has been criticized in a variety of ways. A 2021 article in NEA Today, a publication of the National Education Association, claims, “Since their inception a century ago, standardized tests have been instruments of racism and a biased system,” an observation channeling an opinion common in education circles that standardized tests measure test-taking ability rather than proficiency. But these claims miss a dynamic that sheds light on this issue.

One source I’ve always valued is a book published in 1983, “Ways With Words: Language, Life and Work in Communities and Classrooms,” by the linguistic anthropologist Shirley Brice Heath, who compared how language was used with children in a middle-class white community, a working-class white one and a working-class Black one. She found that in conversation, questions were wielded differently depending on the community. A key difference was that in middle-class white ones, children were often asked disembodied, information-seeking questions as a kind of exercise amid general social interaction. Heath wrote:

“Mothers continue their question-answer routines when the children begin to talk and add to them running narratives on items and events in the environment. Children are trained to act as conversation partners and information-givers.”

In the middle-class subculture Heath describes, children unconsciously incorporate into their mental tool kit a comfort with retaining and discussing facts for their own sake, as opposed to processing facts mainly as they relate to the practicalities of daily existence. The same kind of skill development that’s fostered by reading for pleasure or personal interest — as opposed to reading for school lessons — a ritual which preserves and displays information beyond the everyday.

Heath found that while the printed page is hardly alien to the working-class Black community (which she gives the pseudonym “Trackton”; her pseudonymous white working-class community is “Roadville” and her pseudonymous white middle-class community is “Maintown”), and questions themselves are certainly part of how language is used within it, particular kinds of questions about matters unconnected to daily living were relatively rare. A paperpublished in 1995 by the National Languages and Literacy Institute of Australia cited Heath and notes that “the Trackton world is warm, buzzing with emotion and adult communication, an environment to which the child gradually adapts by a process of imitation and repetition.” However, it adds, “the language socialization of the Trackton child is,” in contrast to Maintown, “almost book-free.” One Trackton grandmother described part of the dynamic to Heath in this way: “We don’t talk to our chil’rn like you folks do. We don’t ask ’em ’bout colors, names ’n things.”

Yes, Heath’s book was written some time ago. Certainly, Black kids don’t grow up not knowing their colors or that things have names. But that quote does get at something in a general sense. Importantly, Heath’s study was objective and respectful. She isn’t a culture-wars partisan. Her point wasn’t that Black culture, or working-class culture, is unenlightened or that Black people or working-class white people are in any sense inarticulate. Neither she then, nor I now, say there is some flaw in Black or working-class white culture.

The issue is, rather, how we square what worked for the past with what will work for today. No culture can be faulted for lagging a bit on that. Working-class Black culture was born amid hard-working people in segregated America for whom higher education was, in many, if not most cases, a distant prospect, and language was used to operate in the here and now. Think of August Wilson’s plays.

That makes perfect sense in a working-class setting and is the way most people in the world proceed linguistically. Heath noted, though, about both the white and Black working-class communities she studied that “neither community’s ways with the written word prepares it for the school’s ways.” In that context, it’s easier to understand stubbing a proverbial toe on standardized tests at first.

I experienced this as a 1970s middle-class Black kid, coming of age just a decade or so after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., growing up in neighborhoods with lots of “post-civil rights” Black kids of various backgrounds. Middle- and upper-middle class Black families, while taking advantage of widened opportunities, could still dialogue in the way Trackton families did, and many still do. This is hardly limited to Black people. However, to the extent that we still have a wealth gap and an education gap, and that the poverty rate is disproportionately high for Black, Latino and Indigenous people, we might expect these groups, in the aggregate, to be affected by this aspect of language and its legacies.

Let’s recognize, then, that calling something like a credentialing exam racist is crude — it flies past issues more nuanced and complex. Heath’s study doesn’t have all the answers, and there are many working-class homes in which children are prepared with the conversational and analytical skills required to excel on standardized tests. But we might absorb the reality that circumstances will leave some people better poised to take tests than others, and that will mean pass rates on such tests will differ according to race at least for a while.

And let’s recognize that the pass rate on the social work association’s clinical exam goes up after successive attempts: According to the association, the eventual pass rate is 57 percent for Black test-takers, 77 percent for Latinos and 74 percent for Native Americans. Also, among social workers, Black people are overrepresented — over 20 percent as of 2017 — in relation to our proportion of the population, which hardly suggests an obstacle to Black participation in the profession.

Might there be a reason to adjust the exams? Perhaps, if, as the petition states, among the social workers surveyed in order to compose the questions, 80 percent are white people, even though Black and Latino people combined constitute 36 percent of new social workers. If nothing else, to eliminate the appearance of bias, the association ought to survey a representative group to generate test questions.

But insisting simply that it is racist, and therefore, constructively, immoral, to subject Black and Latino social workers to standardized test questions is itself a kind of immorality. It’s a squeak away from arguing that Black and Latino people just aren’t very quick on the uptake or can’t think outside of the box. What kind of antiracism is that?

Source: Lower Black and Latino Pass Rates Don’t Make a Test Racist

McWhorter: The Herd Mentality Is All Around Us. I Still See Hope for Diversity of Thought.

Money quote:

The collegiality of groups united around manufactured certainties and Manichaean worldviews is tempting, but also a kind of cop-out — and quite unmodern. Courage is allowing that your own view may be but one legitimate one among many, that there are no easy answers, and that being your own self is a more gracious existence than joining a herd.


There are times when things really throw you a curve as to what you thought human nature was. For me, one of them was when carrying mobile phones became the default. It would never have occurred to me before then that so many people would want to talk and text in their spare moments as much as they do.

It should have. We are fundamentally social creatures who for centuries existed within smallish bands of people well known to one another. “Personal space” and the idea of being left alone with one’s thoughts can almost be seen as modern add-ons to what humanity is like, and perhaps more typical of WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic) societies than others — WEIRD-ness being the coinage of Joseph Henrich, an anthropologist at Harvard and the author of “The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous.” Reviewing the book for The Times, the Tufts University philosophy professor Daniel Dennett described Henrich’s concept thusly:

“The world today has billions of inhabitants who have minds strikingly different from ours. Roughly, we weirdos are individualistic, think analytically, believe in free will, take personal responsibility, feel guilt when we misbehave and think nepotism is to be vigorously discouraged, if not outlawed. Right? They (the non-WEIRD majority) identify more strongly with family, tribe, clan and ethnic group, think more “holistically,” take responsibility for what their group does (and publicly punish those who besmirch the group’s honor), feel shame — not guilt — when they misbehave and think nepotism is a natural duty.”

That realization makes less shocking to me, albeit utterly dismaying, the many dogmatic behaviors exhibited today that seem outwardly irrational or close to it. The kinds of things that make it seem as if so many of us are, so to speak, losing it are actually signs of how difficult it can be to get past what we seem to be hard-wired for. Fanatic beliefs, furious ideologies and even, potentially, a sense of duty to harm people in the name of certain beliefs reflect the eternal temptation of a sense of belonging to a group, of being part of a larger story, of having a guiding sense of purpose. To us WEIRD-os, by contrast, the ever-stronger purchase of individualism in our intellectual, moral and civic development seems natural. But it’s challenging, perhaps unnatural, to be an individual.

There will always be those who prefer the warm embrace of feeling as if they are part of a heroic mass movement, united in a communal grievance and spared the challenge of individuality, which entails facing the possibility of being wrong, of grappling with nuance, of living one’s own story without certainty as to how it will end.

Among those shirking that challenge are the people who cannot be budged from the fantasy that the former president Donald Trump won the 2020 election, the people fashioning themselves as eternal victims of undifferentiated masses of white people ever badgering Black people with microaggressions and the people who appear motivated to attempt to kill someone in the name of a religious leader’s declaration. The results of these impulses vary greatly in impact and import, but to differing degrees they’re all symptoms of the same preference of being part of a herd even at the expense of coherence.

But our times are bifurcated. There are signs that at the same time, so many other people are seeking to countenance diversity of thought, disavowing the comforts of the idea that their view is the only legitimate one and fostering an ideal under which our society frames difference of opinion as a norm rather than a threat. We can see it in aspects of linguistic behavior as well as in broader cultural matters.

Casual American English, in ways we’re not always conscious of, is more overt in allowing room for disagreement than it used to be. For example, the use of “like” that so bothers purists is in reality a useful discursive hedge, along with phrases such as “sort of,” “kind of” and “you know.” In conversation, these expressions can be read as subtle indications that someone knows that there are other ways to view things, and to be too categorical is to imply a certainty that all may not share.

I’ve mentioned this before in this newsletter, but I’d like to illustrate how ingrained this has become with a recent NPR interview, wherein the journalist Michael Grunwald expresses himself in what is now an ordinary fashion on all levels of media, with hedges discreetly tucked in. Talking at first about the American Rescue Plan, he places these rhetorical hedges alongside potentially disputable or controversial points as a way of being not inarticulate or hesitant but considerate (emphasis added):

“So that really worked. And, you know, some people would argue it worked too well, and it helped create some of the inflation sort of overheating the economy.

The infrastructure bill and the Inflation Reduction Act — I think, you know, the jury’s still out. Those are 10-year bills. You know, we’ll see how the implementation goes.”

And a bit later, of President Biden:

“In the Obama administration, he was kind of the go-to negotiator. … And I think you’d have to say that at some level, he’s been able to do business, even if largely on the Inflation Reduction Act, certainly, he kind of left it to the Senate to iron out the details.”

It’s true that public speech is simply less formal than it once was, but it’s also the case that informal speech in the past involved less of this kind of polite hedge. If I pick up a nearly half-century-old source such as “Informal Speech: Alphabetic and Phonemic Text With Statistical Analyses and Tables,” a book full of examples of people, including young people, just talking, I’m likely to find few, if any, examples of the informal, hedging “like.” Indeed, there was a time in our lifetimes (or at least in mine) when “like” was, like, not a thing. It’s often thought of as a feature of ditzy “Valley”-speak. (Listen here to the British actress Emilia Clarke, of “Game of Thrones” fame, doing a delightful, if just a bit stereotypical, Valley accent for the late night host Jimmy Kimmel.) But “like” deserves recognition as a nuanced conversational device that enables something we find in short supply today: consideration for the listener.

Grunwald is a respected writer and analyst. If you listen to his interview, you’ll hear someone speaking confidently and intelligently. And with his informality, peppering in the occasional hedge, he skillfully moves an informative conversation along by gently signaling to the listener that he is unpacking (sorry, Frank Bruni) what he knows about Biden’s record while leaving room for alternative points of view. He’s offering discussion, not dictating his perspective.

I’m also heartened by increasingly widespread interest in how we can have productive conversations despite differing beliefs. It has become, especially since 2020, one of the things people like me are most often asked to speak about, and I can personally attest that it has become a hot topic even in informal settings, like chatting with other parents at kids’ birthday parties and such.

For example, diversity, equity and inclusion programs often seem to be devoted to ridding workers of bias against, shall we say, diverse people. But there are scholars who’ve found that these programs “backfire.” A more constructive goal, in any case, would be to broaden the project beyond confronting bias and, rather, to help people deal with the challenge of differences among people and groups in this highly multiethnic society.

I think this week about Moral Courage College, an alternative to the D.E.I. ritual, a program offering training in how to productively grapple with the wide range of views and experiences found in most workplaces, as well as colleges, universities and even K-12 schools. Its founder, Irshad Manji, whom I know and admire, has created a method called Diversity Without Division. “This program doesn’t tell anybody what to think or believe,” she has said, “it teaches everybody to lower their emotional defenses so that contentious issues can be turned into constructive conversations and healthy teamwork.”

I’m also learning more about the Theory of Enchantment program created by Chloé Valdary (who, like me, is sometimes labeled a “heterodox” or “contrarian” Black voice). Among other things, she stresses how important it is in our conversations to “treat people like human beings, not political abstractions.”

The “courage” part of the name Moral Courage College is vital. The collegiality of groups united around manufactured certainties and Manichaean worldviews is tempting, but also a kind of cop-out — and quite unmodern. Courage is allowing that your own view may be but one legitimate one among many, that there are no easy answers, and that being your own self is a more gracious existence than joining a herd.

Source: The Herd Mentality Is All Around Us. I Still See Hope for Diversity of Thought.

McWhorter: The default should be to extend grace to those who’ve breached woke etiquette


Paul Laurence Dunbar was perhaps the pre-eminent Black poet of the era after Reconstruction. In a new biography, the Princeton University English professor Gene Andrew Jarrett takes Dunbar’s rather glum, shortish life and pulls off a book that pulls you along like an open bag of potato chips; for the first 100 or so pages, I could barely put it down. But there’s one thing that jars like a wrong note every time it comes up: Dunbar regularly and casually referred to Black people of a lower social class than his with the N-word. An example: “I dressed at the hall dressing room in all clean linen, but had to send a [N-word] out for a standing collar because mine were all lay-downs.”

Sadly, this wasn’t atypical for more fortunate Black people of the era. Dunbar’s erudite and accomplished wife, Alice Dunbar Nelson, also used the word freely in their letters. The mother of the late-19th- and early-20th-century Black composer and conductor Will Marion Cook used the word in dismay at her classically trained son’s pursuing popular music with sometimes salty lyrics.

That kind of open classism — particularly when directed by middle- and upper-class Black people of the Victorian era toward working-class Black people — can be startling for contemporary readers. Today, for a well-heeled Black person to denigrate a less well-off Black person in this way would be deemed malicious at worst or elitist respectability politics at best.

Knowing this about Dunbar might sour someone’s opinion of him as an individual, but his use of the N-word and the sentiment behind it are unlikely to reduce his stature as a literary figure. And almost no one would consider this as grounds for a retroactive reckoning, reconsideration or, yes, cancellation of the kind to which the legacies of various historical figures are now subject. If for no other reason, then probably because his is a case of intra-Black offense being given.

One can quibble about what being canceled really means; the answer probably lies somewhere between Woodrow Wilson’s name being removed from Princeton’s public policy school and Gina Carano being dropped from the cast of “The Mandalorian.” But with Dunbar, it’s hard to imagine anyone kicking up much dust or writing, let’s say, a think-piece asking us to affix his condescension toward fellow Black people to him like a Homeric epithet, nullifying or adulterating his intellectual contributions.

That’s a good thing. We should be able to evaluate various figures, past and present, by noting their indecorous or hateful views and continuing to appreciate, even celebrate, their achievements without making them candidates for cancellation. And Dunbar’s case gets me thinking about people with less immediately dismissible stains on their records for whom the almost recreational hostility of cancel culture has held off.

Being Black and a woman seems to discourage the mob, for example. And my point, to be very clear, isn’t that Black women wrongly benefit from some kind of special pleading. It’s that, on the contrary, the forbearance that’s been extended to a number of prominent Black women in recent times should be the norm.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Alice Walker has produced writing and made statements that are readily interpreted as antisemitic, and while there have been a few protests and disinvitations and criticism aplenty, no real movement has arisen to demand that her artistic achievements be viewed through this prism. As The Atlantic’s Caitlin Flanagan argued, Walker has been treated rather “gently” about this issue, specifically in a New Yorker article written this past spring, whereas few could imagine similarly gentle treatment of J.K. Rowling for views many interpret as transphobic. Flanagan notes that in contrast, in 2020 The New Yorker asked, about another literary figure, “How Racist Was Flannery O’Connor?”

A few weeks after apologizing for her anti-Israel “Benjamins” tweet in 2019, Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota got the chance, in the pages of The Washington Post, to clarify her stance on the Israel-Palestinian conflict and remains a hero to many on the political left; this week, she won her Democratic primary.

In 2015 the actress Phylicia Rashad said of her former co-star Bill Cosby’s accusers, “Forget these women.” Last year, when Cosby’s sexual assault conviction was overturned, she tweeted, “FINALLY!!!!” before deleting it, tweeting a walk-back and apologizing to the Howard University community. She remains the dean of Howard’s college of fine arts.

The MSNBC host Joy Reid was revealed to have written homophobic blog posts in the aughts, and her later attempts to explain them away weren’t terribly convincing. This blotted her record, but after a brief outcry, her career as a progressive oracle on prime-time TV remains intact.

Contrast Reid’s situation to the Emmy-winning actress Roseanne Barr being fired from the sitcom she starred in because of a racially demeaning tweet about the former White House adviser Valerie Jarrett. Try to imagine a white male university official getting so smooth a ride as Rashad after caping for Cosby. Ponder the stock response of Democratic voters to a white male member of Congress accused of antisemitism.

Is there a sense on the left — where it seems the canceling impulse is strongest — that Black women should get more of a pass on transgressions of social justice etiquette because of the double burden of being female and Black? I’m not sure.

But whatever our verdict on that, I am sure that this measure of forbearance should be the default for public or historical figures. Of course, it’s fair, maybe necessary in some instances, to chastise these figures. Of course, sometimes there will be transgressions so widely condemned that the transgressors are irredeemable. But most of the time, emphasizing people’s contributions despite their flaws — seeing them in totality and not boiling down their lives to their specific missteps — is just civilized rationality. The idea that an isolated breach of social justice etiquette should derail a career is calisthenic. So when we see that happening, we should hesitate and, in most cases, root for outcomes where people get criticized, perhaps, for their wrongthink but not shoved out of the public square.

I recommend Walker’s “The Temple of My Familiar,” a book that left me ashamed of being a man and yet wanting to read it again. Reid’s career as a broadcaster outweighs any parochial views about gay people she now disavows. I’d happily see Rashad in acting roles forever, despite my disappointment in her take on Cosby. I, frankly, wouldn’t vote for Omar but accept that voters in her district see things differently.

We know, certainly, there are situations where people other than Black women have avoided cancellation. Dave Chappelle comes to mind. My point, again, is that some degree of grace is called for in most cases — for the college professor who says something impolitic in class and the historical figure whose words are appalling now but were consistent with his times.

We need to rethink the entire practice of treating unpretty sentiments as if they summed up anyone’s life or work, whether you’re talking about a political titan or a contemporary celebrity. That Thomas Jefferson was an enslaver and thought of Black people as inferior is a sad aspect of his totality, and his hypocrisy on race should be noted. But it doesn’t negate all else he accomplished, including drafting the Declaration of Independence, a document that guides and governs our very way of life.

Back to O’Connor and the racism that has caused some to reconsider her work. Yes, she used the N-word freely in letters and wrote, “About the Negroes, the kind I don’t like is the philosophizing prophesying pontificating kind, the James Baldwin kind. Very ignorant but never silent.” It reflects a bigotry and a parochialism not unlike Dunbar’s. (And she’s just wrong about Baldwin.) But that doesn’t dilute the brilliance or literary value of a story such as her “Parker’s Back.” And it won’t work to claim that the difference between O’Connor and Dunbar is that his objectionable remarks were intra-Black. By today’s woke standards, wouldn’t classism tinged with racism be an intersectional double whammy? If there’s room to look beyond his flaws, O’Connor should get the same treatment.

One more: The biologist E.O. Wilson, who died last year, faced accusations of racism, a charge that continues to be explored. One article describes an epistolary cordiality with the Canadian psychologist J. Philippe Rushton, who had openly racist views about Black people. In one such letter, Wilson reportedly praised Rushton’s paper arguing that “Black and non-Black people pursue different reproductive strategies.” That’s far from ideal, but even less ideal is any sense that this aspect of Wilson must be ongoingly considered amid our assessment of his pioneering genius. I was knocked out by his book “Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge,” about the progress of our understanding of the world, and considering how he may have felt about Black people would have been quite irrelevant to the experience.

Whether we’re talking about the past or the present, the idea that being insufficiently progressive or sensitive can wind up being the measure of a person’s worth is a call to disavow intelligent assessment in favor of gut-level impulses. It’s an all-or-nothing kind of thinking that, in the guise of insight, teaches a form of dimness. We seem to spontaneously understand this in some instances. We need to extend that basic common sense, that basic ability to make distinctions and see the whole picture, when evaluating trespasses by people of all walks of life and across time.

Source: The default should be to extend grace to those who’ve breached woke etiquette

McWhorter: Every Day, We’re Told to Use New Lingo. What Does That Really Accomplish?

Indeed. Changing terminology and labels is often an easy way out of confronting the harder substantive issues and disparities. Fairly or not, I tend to discount those who focus more on terminology than substance:

The left these days gets a bad rap for policing language. It can be irritating to feel like you have to watch how you say things or keep up with the latest lingo when the old lingo still seems perfectly fine. This is especially the case with counterintuitive ideas such as referring not to “pregnant women” but to “people who are pregnant” — a phrase now used on Planned Parenthood’s website — or the even less intuitive “birthing people,” which we’re asked to embrace as inclusive, and therefore progressive, despite that both reduce women to being biological vessels.

I’m certainly not arguing for intolerance toward those who can become pregnant but don’t identify as women. I’m saying that even if we’re not being forced to use the new terms, the way they’re introduced, almost as if by fiat, can make it seem as if sticking with the old ones is a kind of thought crime. But it isn’t that those on the left have some weird, childish yen for control. Rather, they seem to be operating under an attractive but shaky idea that language channels thought: Change how people say things and you change how they think about things and then the world changes.

That’s not how it works, though. Good intentions frequently don’t translate into efficacy. So, the question is, how much does changing terminology really accomplish?

In the late 1980s, the Rev. Jesse Jackson said the term “African American” had more “cultural integrity,” and “Black” was, therefore, out of date. But I’d be hard-pressed to say that the Black community today has a greater measure of cultural integrity or is any prouder than it was then. And though a recent poll showed that a majority of Black Americans see being Black as central to their identity, the younger they are, the less central it is — suggesting less significance, as time goes on, about what we call ourselves.

I think also of Nina Simone’s musicalization of Lorraine Hansberry’s phrase “To be young, gifted and Black.” Watch Simone perform this song in Questlove’s Oscar-winning documentary, “Summer of Soul,” with her vocal emphasis, full of conviction, on the word “Black.” Singing “African American” wouldn’t — couldn’t — ring with the same richness. Black America added meaning to and wrested pride out of a word that was supposed to have negative connotations by thinking of ourselves as beautiful and determined. I’m not sure “African American,” just as a term, has furthered that at all: “To be young, gifted and African American”?

Remember, too, the “euphemism treadmill” described by the Harvard University psychology professor Steven Pinker, who explained in a 1994 Times Opinion essay: “People invent new ‘polite’ words to refer to emotionally laden or distasteful things, but the euphemism becomes tainted by association and the new one that must be found acquires its own negative connotations.” For example, the pathway from “crippled” to “handicapped” to “disabled” to “differently abled.” New words ultimately don’t leave freighted ideas behind; they merely take them on.

Consider the phrase “urban renewal.” Starting in the 1930s, there were initiatives in American cities to raze working-class, often Black neighborhoods. They would eventually be replaced with various civic projects, such as new highway construction. One term for this, embraced by city planning éminences grises such as Robert Moses in New York City, was “slum clearance.”

As the years passed, the downsides of this destruction of modest but cohesive communities became more apparent, and the term “slum clearance” was gradually supplanted by the term “urban renewal,” starting in the 1950s. But calling it urban renewal didn’t persuade a range of writers, thinkers and displaced residents to celebrate this destructive dislocation. Other than by, perhaps, some city planners, urban renewal was increasingly perceived as a glum business — the same business — as slum clearance. James Baldwin memorably coined it with the more reality-based term, “Negro removal.”

Even when factoring in Pinker’s treadmill, I understand the impulse to refer to “enslaved people” rather than “slaves” — not all new terminology is pointless. Describing someone as a “slave” can be taken as indicating that servitude is an inherent trait rather than an imposed condition. But I suspect that after a while, the term “enslaved person” will continue its lexical drift and we’ll need a new term. Why? Because of what happened to “homeless person,” which began as an enlightened replacement for terms such as “bum” and “bag lady,” but is now itself being slowly replaced by referring to someone who is “unhoused.”

It is, then, reasonable to surmise that terms such as “pregnant people,” while pleasing a certain contingent, will not deter most people from continuing to perceive the world according to an old-fashioned gender binary. Basic perception will remain that most pregnant people are cisgender women, such that it will still feel natural to think of being pregnant as something women experience, and it will feel forced to use gender-neutral language, even as we acknowledge that there are people who identify as men or nonbinary who can become pregnant.

As I’ve discussed before in this newsletter, research has shown that language can influence thought, but sometimes only slightly. And what pops up in a psychological experiment may not track with real-life behavior: The Implicit Association Test, more than two decades old, has often been used to demonstrate how implicit bias is supposed to work — how negative associations with terms such as “Black” may correlate with people exhibiting prejudice or bigotry. But a more recent analysis argues that there is no evidence that quietly associating negative terms with Black people rather than white people in such tests correlates with racist behavior.

Today’s predilection for newspeak neglects all of this. Frankly, I think it is partly because generating new labels offers instant gratification, especially with the internet handy. It’s easier to introduce new terms than to change the way different groups referred to by those terms are really perceived. In that way, never-ending calls to change the way people talk and write is less an advance than a cop-out.

Terminology will, of course, evolve over time for various reasons. But broadly speaking, thought leaders and activists of past eras put their emphasis on what people did and said — not on ever-finer gradations of how they might have said it.

Far better to teach people what you think they should think about something, and why, instead of classifying the way they express themselves about it as a form of disrespect or backwardness. After a while, if you teach well, they won’t be saying what you don’t want them to say. Mind you, you may not be around to see the fruits of the endeavor — a frustrating aspect of change is that it tends to happen slowly. But “Change words!” is no watchcry for a serious progressivism.

Source: Every Day, We’re Told to Use New Lingo. What Does That Really Accomplish?

McWhorter: ‘Racism’ Has Too Many Definitions. We Need Another Term.

Interesting distinction, between the individual and the systemic, and questions regarding the nexus between the two:

Since Saturday, the mass shooting in Buffalo has rarely left my mind. Ten innocent people killed at a supermarket in a predominantly Black neighborhood. Out of 13 people shot, 11 were Black. According to law enforcement, the man accused of shooting them, Payton Gendron, was motivated by racist hate. Erie County Sheriff John Garcia didn’t equivocate when he said, within hours, that it was a “straight up racially motivated hate crime.” Nor did Mayor Byron Brown when he said on Sunday that “this individual came here with the expressed purpose of taking as many Black lives as he possibly could.” It’s impossible not to be reminded of the 2015 massacre at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, S.C., and, sorrowfully, we have no reason to think something like that won’t happen again.

Clearly, racism is not over in the United States.

I have reason to suppose, however, that there are more than a few who think that I am not aware of this. A heterodox thinker on race, as I and others are sometimes called, is often accused of thinking, “There’s no racism.” Or as more temperately inclined folks sometimes say to me, we underplay racism and seem not to understand that it’s still out there. As such, I as well as similarly minded Black thinkers such as Glenn Loury, Coleman Hughes, Wilfred Reilly, Orlando Patterson and Thomas Chatterton Williams are dealing in an alternate reality.

Much of this kind of impression is due to our questioning of how sweeping the use of the word “racism” has become, and I’d like to clarify, at a juncture like this, why I take issue with most strains of what is today called antiracism, despite the reality of racist violence.

The key difference is between outright bigotry and the more abstract operations of what we call “systemic racism.” Yes, there is a synergy between the two. But as the difficulty in our conversations about racism attests, there is a wide gulf between personal prejudice (Racism 1.0) and the societal and sociohistorical operations that render Black physicists, for example, rare relative to Black people’s proportion of the population — Racism 2.0, sometimes even termed “white supremacy.” In an alternate universe, those two things might not go under the same name.

On Racism 1.0, the lamentable thing is that I see no reason it will ever completely vanish, at least not in our lifetimes. Studies haverevealed that a degree of fear and distrust of “the other” exists in our species, for better or worse. Call it conservative of me, but I see little point in hoping that human nature will entirely change. Educated Westerners, especially, have already acquired a more robust habit of self-monitoring for racism than perhaps any humans in history. In our country, this habit noticeably gained traction in the 1960s. Some argue that white Americans need to go further, plumbing more deeply for subtle racist assumptions in their hearts. I understand the desire for it but wonder just how realistic that expectation is at this point.

I assume, with regret, that there will always be racists among us. As long as our gun laws make it easy to obtain assault-style weapons, there will be people, some mentally imbalanced and some just plain evil, who decide to commit mass shootings. There is no reason the hatred in people like this will mysteriously step around racism; the question would be why such people would not often be motivated by it. We live with this horror.

However, there isn’t enough of a nexus between this grim reality and disparities between Black people and white people — in, for example, wealth and educational opportunity — to gracefully put both under the general heading of “racism.” That is, we increasingly apply the term in reference both to violent hate crimes and to the fact that, for example, in the aggregate, Black students don’t perform as well on standardized tests as some of their counterparts. But while we tend to use the term “racism” for both things, it isn’t readily obvious to most how both prejudice and a differential in performance are versions of the same thing, referred to with one word. One of the thorniest aspects of today’s race debate is that we have come to apply that word to a spread of phenomena so vast as to potentially confuse even the best-intended of people.

As such, to be aware of a case like the Buffalo tragedy cannot be taken as making inevitable one’s support for antiracist initiatives such as reparations for slavery or taking funds away from the police in a given city. There may be arguments for such proposals, but the existence of outright bigotry and racist violence is not one of them.

Thus, I am chilled to my socks by what happened in Buffalo while also opposed to the ideology that challenges mainstream standards as “white,” sanctions the censure and dismissal of those who fail to adhere to fashionable tenets of antiracist doctrine, and condescends to Black people by encouraging exaggerated claims of injury. My position comes in full awareness that there remain people in our society who deeply despise Black people and Blackness.

There will always be those who see cases like this one, shake their heads and dismiss someone who sees things as I do with the thought: “And he thinks racism is over — yeah, right.” I can’t fix that, but I suspect I can get a little further with those who think heterodox Black thinkers are reasonable but still underplay the effects of racism. I don’t think we do. I am respectful toward, but skeptical of, potential arguments holding, for example, that acknowledging Racism 1.0 requires accepting the precepts of Racism 2.0. But I hope this newsletter shows, in line with the theme of a recent one I wrote, that my leeriness about how well that kind of argument could hold up is based on neither ignorance nor malevolence, but opinion.

Source: ‘Racism’ Has Too Many Definitions. We Need Another Term.

ICYMI McWhorter: Too often, we fail to credit our political opponents’ morality

Where his arguments break down is with respect to the political tactics involved and the moral bankruptcy of some who are more concerned with abortion than supports and programs after birth. But valid points on the dangers of assumptions regarding those who one disagrees with, whether on the left or right:

One year, when I was a graduate student, I ate twice a day with a group of other students that included about a half-dozen Republican law students. What I learned that year informs my take on the looming overturning of Roe v. Wade by the Supreme Court — assuming something close to the draft of Justice Samuel Alito’s opinion, leaked to Politico, becomes final — affecting my reaction to it, despite remaining pro-choice and being, in the grand scheme of things, alarmed by the impending developments.

As an undergraduate, I had been minted under the idea — as prevalent on college campuses then as it is now — that Republicans are just wrong about most things. Then and perhaps now, there were, especially, middle-class and affluent people who sneered at and about them, even if not knowing or caring much about partisan politics.

But some years later, after having spent hours on end listening to these law students discuss issues political, against my inclination I could not help starting to notice that they usually made a kind of sense.

Mind you, none of them were talking about taking their country back, nonexistent voter fraud or conspiracy theories about the basements of pizza shops. The late-Reagan-early-Bush-41 era was different from this one. These were earnest, intelligent people who simply processed the world through a different lens than mine.

I didn’t become a Republican, but I considered my immersion in their worldview a part of my education. I’m glad fate threw me into getting to know them, and, indeed, it was part of why I felt comfortable being a Democrat working for a right-leaning think tank, the Manhattan Institute, in the aughts. A major lesson I took from those law students was to avoid a tempting, all-too-common misimpression: that if people have views different from yours, then the reason is either that they lack certain information or are simply bad people — that they’re either naifs or knaves.

This assumption hobbles a great deal of exchange on college campuses and beyond. As sociologist Ilana Redstone notes, “when we fail to recognize the moral legitimacy of a range of positions on controversial topics, disagreements about these issues inevitably become judgments about other people’s character.” In “The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure,” Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt describe this as the wrongheaded view that “life is a battle between good people and evil people.”

In the late 1990s, I started coming out, if you will, with my views against certain tenets of the traditional civil rights orthodoxy, such as the continuation of racial (as opposed to socioeconomic) preferences, or the insistence that racism and economics are the only determinants of performance gaps, and that it is meaningless to discuss culture. As a result, assorted people in my orbit assumed that there must be something wrong with me.

First came the naïve part: In my grad school days, many at first thought that I must be unaware of certain truths. A concerned sociologist pointed me to books about the racial wealth gap, assuming that, after reading them, I would understand that this was the sole reason for the gap between Black and white kids in test scores and grades. A kindly administrator came by my office to explain how determined her immigrant parents had been to succeed in the United States, pushing her and her siblings “tiger mother”-style, with the goal of showing me that it was unfair to expect that kind of drive from American-born Black people. When conservative and libertarian think tanks started inviting me to speak, a friend’s spouse invited me for a beer, which turned out to be a casual teach-in, warning about the histories of some of the Republicans in the Bush 43 administration.

Then came the evil part: When I would let such people know that I was aware of what they were telling me and that my views were unchanged, they were often quietly appalled. Hence the idea out there that I and people of like opinions on race issues are just plain baddies, out for bucks and attention.

But so often, the real issue in these situations is less ignorance or ill will than differing priorities. Take the common idea that to be a Donald Trump supporter is to be, if not a racist, someone who tolerates racism. Yes, some polls reveal that Trump voters were more likely than others to harbor unfavorable views about nonwhites — a 2016 Reuters-Ipsos poll found that Trump supporters were more likely than supporters of Hillary Clinton to view Black people negatively. But the idea that anyone who’s ever pulled the lever for Trump carries the odor of bigotry is facile.

I have known too many Trump voters, of various levels of education, to whom the “racist” tag could be applied only in a hopelessly hasty fashion. Too many of them have worked for civil rights causes in the past or are married to or seriously involved with people of color or are of color themselves, for the racist label to make any real sense. They, rather, do not rank Trump’s casual bigotry as being as important as others do. To them, this trait is unfortunate and perhaps even off-putting, but not a dealbreaker in comparison to other things about him. I see nothing evil in that. It puts me off a bit. It often seems a little crude — I sense some people being swayed, purely, by Trump’s podium charisma. But that is not the same as malevolence.

I feel the same way about those who are opposed to abortion. I am disgusted that the Supreme Court seems poised to make it more difficult in many cases, and practically impossible in others, for American women to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. I am aware of how opposition to abortion has been entangled in the nation’s history of racism, classism and sexism. I understand the fear that the reversal of Roe could be a prelude to future decisions threatening other rights involving private life.

However, I am also aware that opposition to abortion is often founded on a basic idea that it constitutes the taking of a human life, with many seeing a fetus at even its earliest stages as a person-to-be that morality forbids us to kill. I know people of this view of all races, classes and levels of education. For them, all the negative effects of doing away with Roe may fade in importance. To them, those things are a lesser priority than preserving life.

I find the scientific aspect of this position a bit unreflective. I also sense, in many who take this view, less interest in how humans fare in their lives as children and adults than in the fate of humans as fetuses. I have to work to imagine prioritizing a fetus as a person in the way that they do.

But I think I manage it, and with a deep breath, even though it’s not where I stand, I cannot view the equation of abortion and the taking of a life — or even, as some suggest, a murder — as an immoral position. For many, including me, the priority is what a woman does with her own body. As such, many suppose that to be against abortion is to be anti-feminist. But for pro-lifers, a woman’s right even to controlling her own body stops at what they see as killing an unborn child. To many of them, being anti-abortion is quite compatible with feminism.

I deeply wish that we were not on the verge of Roe being overturned — a decision that, if it came to pass, would be opposed by a majority of Americansand would disrupt or even ruin lives. It would represent further and grievous evidence of our broken political system, with the Electoral College a keystone anachronism, having put Trump into a position to recast the Supreme Court according to priorities unshared by most of the population. However, I cannot see opposition to abortion, in itself, as either naïve or evil. As much as I wish it were not, it is a position one can hold as a knowledgeable and moral individual.

Source: McWhorter: Too often, we fail to credit our political opponents’ morality

McWhorter: Don’t sleep: Linguistically, Black Americans can walk and chew gum at the same time

Of interest:

In March, at the annual Conference on College Composition and Communication, one panel presentation was of particular interest: It concerned requirements in first-year college composition classes and discussed the idea that for students whose home dialect is Black English, or another nonstandard dialect, requiring them to write in standard English is a potentially unjust, if not flatly racist imposition, forcing some students to suppress their true selves in favor of a hegemonic artificiality. This school of thought holds that writing instructors should allow — encourage — such freshmen to write either purely in their home dialect or to engage in “code-meshing,” mixing the home dialect and the standard.

It’s an approach that accomplishes the feat of both underserving Black English speakers and diminishing Blackness.

During the panel’s Q. and A., an attendee presented this question: “What do we do when the resistance to code-meshing, for example, in our writing classrooms, comes from our BIPOC students? I ask because, of my attempts to encourage students to use their home dialects in writing, Black students in particular often resist those practices as setting them up for failure. Which only reflects how ingrained they are in a system that is inherently racist.”

The question and the panelists’ answers were quite revealing, including one from Asao Inoue, a rhetoric and composition professor at Arizona State University, who responded that when he hears that kind of objection from a student, he asks himself:

Is it that I have to say, or I have to create a classroom, and a learning experience, that demeans the linguistic history of that student in order for that student to go into the world and go into unfair racist, white supremacist systems and succeed? … Because if that student says, “You’re setting me up for failure,” what they’re saying is, “I want to succeed in that unfair system. I want to game that system.”

But, Inoue continued:

You’re always still going to be Black, or you’re always still going to be Latinx, or you’re always still going to be something else. … you can mouth the words that are white, but they’re coming from a body that’s something else, and you may be read that way. And so, for me, my goal as an educator is to change the system.

Because, he said:

What they’ve been exposed to is capitalist-inflected [expletive] about education being the way in which we, you, become a nice little cog in the system and you get skills. So you can go out in the world and make Microsoft more money.

While not all writing professors would go that far, in terms of appending a critique of capitalist reality to teaching freshman composition, just the notion that standard English is exterior to Black students’ real selves requires a closer look, because it tracks with worrisome currents in the way we are encouraged to think about race, especially lately.

Few familiar with today’s academic world will find Inoue’s opinions especially surprising. The idea in education circles that standard English functions as an unjust “gatekeeper,” holding back students of color, has been around for a long time. Related has been the idea that at the grade-school level, Black students whose home dialect is Black English should be taught as bilinguals of a sort. Adherents of this philosophy don’t say standard English should be withheld but suggest that standard English and Black English should be presented as different languages, as it were. Recall the “Ebonics” debate that gained national attention in the 1990s.

In 1993, English Leadership Quarterly, a publication of the National Council of Teachers of English, published a piece by two Indiana University of Pennsylvania English professors, Donald A. McAndrew and C. Mark Hurlbert, arguing that:

Writers should be encouraged to make intentional errors in standard form and usage. Attacking the demand for standard English is the only way to end its oppression of linguistic minorities and learning writers. We believe this frontal assault is necessary for two reasons: (1) it affords experienced writers, who can choose or not choose to write standard English, a chance to publicly demonstrate against its tyranny and (2) if enough writers do it regularly, our culture’s view of what is standard and acceptable may widen just enough to include a more diverse surface representation of language, creating a more equitable distribution not only of the power in language and literacy but also, ultimately, of the power in economics and politics that language and literacy allow.

Later, as The Washington Times reported in 1995, the N.C.T.E. discussed eliminating “English” from its name. That year, a delegate to its annual convention said, “If we are to offer diversity, there can be a conversation about language arts, but not about English.”

But in the same way that the idea of eliminating references to “English” strikes most as overboard, the idea that for Black people standard English is something wholly apart is simply inaccurate. For most Black Americans, both Black and standard English are part of who we are; our English is, in this sense, larger than many white people’s. In “The Souls of Black Folk,” W.E.B. Du Bois wrote, “I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not … I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension.” On a less exalted level, a great many Black people toggle endlessly between standard and Black English, day in and day out — we code-switch. I always liked how Gloria Naylor was able to get this across, as in this scene from her novel “Mama Day”:

“We ain’t staying long,” Ruby says, pulling up a chair. “But I thought it would be nice for us to meet Cocoa’s new husband.”“It’s a pleasure,” George says.“Doubly mine,” says Ruby. “And this here is my new husband, Junior Lee.”“Pleasssurre.” Junior Lee manages a nod. “Hear you a big railroad man.”“No, I’m an engineer.”

In that exchange, the characters aren’t dipping in and out of what they think of as a cold, alien dialect. They are sounding subtly different notes according to which dialect they render each thought or gesture in. Standard English forms are as much theirs as Black English ones.

Communicating in this way, Black Americans are doing what other people do worldwide, living between two varieties of a language. Swiss people’s formal Hoch Deutsch is almost a different language from the Swiss German they speak informally. The Arabic speaker typically controls both the Modern Standard Arabic derived from the language of the Qur’an and used in formal settings and a local dialect used for real life, like Egyptian or Moroccan.

People in these countries and beyond would find familiar Maya Angelou’s observation in “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” couched as completely unremarkable:

In the classroom we all learned past participles, but in the streets and in our homes the Blacks learned to drop s’s from plurals and suffixes from past-tense verbs. We were alert to the gap separating the written word from the colloquial. We learned to slide out of one language and into another without being conscious of the effort. At school, in a given situation, we might respond with “That’s not unusual.” But in the street, meeting the same situation, we easily said, “It be’s like that sometimes.”

To give some credence to those freshman-comp panelists, we might say that Angelou could have turned away from the “That’s not unusual” and that Du Bois could have considered that in real life Shakespeare, Aristotle and Marcus Aurelius might have looked down on him as some kind of “Aethiope.”

But subordinated and even despised people can, over time, with full awareness of the unjustness of racism, embrace even a foreign language, as opposed to a dialect, that is initially forced upon them. They can come to process it as a part of who they are, as people existing at a particular time, amid a dynamic synergy between the then and the now, the us and the them, the imposition and the resilience.

Many Indians, for instance, cherish English as one facet of the expression of modern Indianness, despite its imposition under colonial rule. Not long ago, I took in Netflix’s Bollywood romantic comedy “Love Per Square Foot,” in which the characters speak “Hinglish,” a neat blend of English and Hindi, a common linguistic phenomenon among many people in India and throughout the Indian diaspora. In the movie, there is nary a suggestion that the English feels to the characters like a spritz of cold water on every second sentence from a mustachioed British imperialist. In the same way, Congolese people go back and forth between French, their African lingua francas such as Lingala (memorably featured in, for example, the documentary “When We Were Kings”) and local indigenous languages few have heard of beyond where they are used.

Too often, what we’re presented with as authentically Black is a kind of essentialization. The idea that people’s authenticity stops at their home dialect does not reflect how people operate linguistically or their experience. Foisted on Black Americans, this idea of the standard dialect as a quiet menace, whatever its progressive intentions, is limiting. Even if the idea is not to ban the standard from a curriculum, if standard English is presented with an eye roll as the province of The Man, this is based in a conception of Blackness needlessly smaller than the reality of it.

Linguistically, Black Americans can and do walk and chew gum at the same time, like countless people around the world — and like it.

Source: McWhorter: Don’t sleep: Linguistically, Black Americans can walk and chew gum at the same time

McWhorter: Vocabulary imposed from on high sometimes just can’t catch on

Before the Canadian government considers embracing the US term BIPOC in its review of the Employment Equity Act, a useful reminder that it is no better than visible minorities in terms of how people see themselves, beyond academics and activists:

“BIPOC” has been with us for a few years now, and a certain verdict would appear to be in. Beyond academic and activist circles and some corners of social media, the acronym, which stands for “Black, Indigenous and people of color,” seems to strike most as rather peculiar. Clumsy, even. The Black academic and San Francisco Examiner columnist Teresa Moore wrote that the term “means well, but I want it to go away,” calling it “a solution to a problem that hadn’t needed solving,” a “‘New Coke’ of a word.”

I agree. Yet this does not mean that the term is, in itself, a mistake or a failure.

To be sure, the term has major problems, despite the good intentions of those who have broadcast and embraced it. The “POC” part is a frustratingly broad category, implying that Latinos and Asians (umbrella terms that are, perhaps, also too broad) constitute a coherent set — not to mention one that is somehow separate from Black and Indigenous people denoted by the “BI.” And “BI” is confusing, in that the term sounds at first as if it refers to bisexual people. Then, even when we are clear that it doesn’t, “BI” still sounds like a prefix of some kind, leading one to wonder just what a “POC” is. When spoken, “BIPOC” sounds like pocks who are bi in some way. And in English at least, “pock” doesn’t sound much like a person. Or, to my ear, if it did refer to a person, it would be in derision: “You pock!”

Although this isn’t how the term actually emerged, “BIPOC” sounds like one in a bunch of names thrown out amid a brainstorming session but never taken seriously, passed over in favor of something better that came up later. And that’s just it: “BIPOC” emerged — or, at least, broadly gained traction — not via a gradual consensus but via abrupt imposition amid the racial reckoning that began two springs ago, when many Americans were determined to renew our commitment to approaching race and racism in constructive ways.

Now, this kind of imposition does not automatically prevent a term from catching on. The problematizing of the term “master bedroom,” out of a sense that we should retire “master” as a relic of plantation slavery, arose from the same impulse as the usage of “BIPOC” and seems to be a success: “Master bedroom” is becoming non grata among some adjuncts of the real estate industry. Issues relating specifically to Black people seem particularly likely to dig a term in, as we also saw with how quickly “African American” caught on around three decades ago.

However, we are not merely passive supplicants at the mercy of prelates imposing lexical fiats from on high. Not everything settles in. For example, we are seeing that proposals for group names are less likely to be embraced when imposed from outside the group itself. When the Rev. Jesse Jackson called for the use of “African American,” his status and authority in Black America were roughly equal to Oprah Winfrey’s today. “African American” would have been much less likely to get around if it had been proposed by academics or lesser-known activists.

That kind of imposition from the outside has meant that “Latinx,” a gender-neutral alternative to “Latino” and “Latina,” is hardly used by the people it purports to refer to. In 2020, Pew Research found that only 3 percent of Latinos use the term. “BIPOC” isn’t doing much better. Too often, we take terminology proposals from academics and journalists as if we will henceforth be penalized — even if only socially — for going against their prescriptions. But their suggestions do not automatically affect language as it is used by ordinary people making themselves understood casually and comfortably.

It can seem that way because academics and journalists do a disproportionate amount of public writing and talking. For example, I suspect that normal people will continue saying “master bedroom”; I certainly will. Thus, there is no need to bristle at the proliferation of “BIPOC” as some kind of glowering fiat. Very few BIPOCs use it, and as Amy Harmon reported last year for The Times, in one national poll, “more than twice as many white Democrats said they felt ‘very favorably’ toward ‘BIPOC’ as Americans who identify as any of the nonwhite racial categories it encompasses.” And that is unlikely to change.

Again, this doesn’t mean “BIPOC” is a failed term. It has simply become part of a burgeoning register of English favored primarily by certain professors and political activists. This is no more a problem than another register, the academese favored by many scholars of literature and the social sciences. People of this realm have a way of writing and even speaking to one another on academic subjects that seems almost exotic to the outsider. For example, the renowned critical theorist and University of California, Berkeley, professor Judith Butler was granted first place in the journal Philosophy and Literature’s tongue-in-cheek bad-writing contest in 1998 for her prose in a 1997 essay, “Further Reflections on Conversations of Our Time,” that included this passage:

“The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.”

I find it a little facile to dismiss this genre, even in jest, as simply bad writing. Its practitioners intend it as studiously objective and precise. And the main thing, despite how unaesthetic this writing may be, is that it has no effect on how most of us communicate. It’s an in-group practice that people look upon from the outside with a certain bemusement. It is a jargon.

People who refer to hegemony and structural totalities have a jargon. These days, there is what we could call, yes, a woke jargon. That is where “Latinx” and “BIPOC” live. These terms are not mistakes or misfires in not being taken up by most of the people they refer to, then. Who, after all, has an issue with there being jargons?

As Sandra Garcia reported for The Times in 2020, Sylvia Obell, a host of the podcast “Okay, Now Listen,” said, “We are asking for a lot of things, and being called BIPOC is not one of them.” She added, “Stop making decisions for us without us.” She need not worry: The decision cannot be, and will not be, forced on her or anyone else. People will be referred to as BIPOC among a certain contingent who, like all contingents, have ways of speaking that signal membership in their group and dedication to the group’s fundamental commitments.

There isn’t a thing wrong with that, but the rest of us can — and will — happily continue speaking and writing of Black people, Latino or Hispanic people, Native American or Indigenous people, people of South Asian or East Asian descent and all the other kinds of people, including, if we please, people of color.

Source: Vocabulary imposed from on high sometimes just can’t catch on