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Reality check: Linking language and culture can promote racism


March 27, 2013

Linking a living language with a particular culture, even a nation, may be commonsensical but it can be misleading, according to Professor Jane H. Hill, featured speaker in the 2013 Wells Fargo Distinguished Lecture Series hosted by Arizona State University’s School of Transborder Studies.

The free public lecture “Race and Language in a Reality-Based World” is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. April 4 in ASU’s Education Lecture Hall (EDC 117) on the Tempe campus.

“Why do people want to link language with culture?” asked Hill, Regents’ Professor of Anthropology and Linguistics (Emerita) at the University of Arizona. “It’s not so much that they want to, but it’s a deep-seated belief for them that goes back hundreds of years. It was explicit in the work of Germans in the 18th and 19th centuries that language expresses the ‘soul’ of a people – and that’s when it first became mixed up with nationalism.”

According to Hill, making a direct association between a language and a culture can lead to essentialist presuppositions that ignore the complexity of language and how culture and history may be embedded in its many forms – or left out altogether. She adds that such presumptions have led to generations of misunderstanding.

“Language equals race and race equals nation and each nation has a boundary and this has caused problems for centuries,” Hill said. “It gets to the point where you can’t see your own country’s diversity, or if you do, then it’s a problem of some kind.

“You wind up with essentialisms, where you say that anybody who speaks Spanish, for example, is not really American. But in fact Spanish has been spoken here longer than English in the Southwest and Florida – before Jamestown and Plymouth were even settled.”

ASU Regents’ Professor and Director of the School of Transborder Studies Carlos Vélez-Ibáñez, a former colleague of Hill’s, noted that she also studies how people use language to maintain control. In her 2008 book titled “The Everyday Language of White Racism,” Hill defines her concept of “White racism” as cultural projects in the United States using a system of everyday language that is mostly invisible yet encompasses not only Whites but many people of color, at least on occasion.

“White racism has very little to do with melanin, very little to do with color,” said Vélez-Ibáñez. “Rather, it’s the means by which a dominant linguistic, cultural and social population maintains its control over others. It’s very subtle because it’s not just Anglos, but also Mexicans who are involved in White racism, as well as African Americans.”

Vélez-Ibáñez noted that White racism is manifested in a variety of ways, one of which is what Hill calls “Mock Spanish.” Hill suggests in her research that Mock Spanish involves the appropriation and reshaping of linguistic and cultural resources in American English that many people consider to be “witty and enjoyable.”

“Non-Spanish speakers who use terms like ‘no problemo’ that came out in the famous ‘Terminator’ movie and similar versions of Spanish are ways in which to maintain distance as well as subordination of the Spanish language itself,” Vélez-Ibáñez said. “It’s a kind of mock language.

“And the mock language has a message behind it other than poor pronunciation. The message behind it is ‘I can use your language the way in which I feel like it because I’m in control.’”

Hill said her research also shows that denial of racism on the part of Whites is mostly universal regardless of their political persuasion. White racism is produced by everyone from liberal bloggers and progressives to hedge-fund magnates and kindergarten teachers – both men and women, she noted.

“Biases circulate in subtle and covert ways,” Hill explained. “If you have them, it doesn’t mean you’re an evil person. But it does mean that you can move through the world more mindfully. The immediate response to an accusation of racism is to make excuses. A better response would be to say, ‘I’m sorry I made you feel that way, what did I do and I’ll try not to do it again.’”

During her lecture, Hill said she also will address how she considers the denial of racism to be on a par with climate change denial and denial of evolution: “These are all discernible realities that people make excuses for.”

The linguistic anthropology expert said she wants her lecture to engage a variety of viewpoints and encourage the audience to question the use of language around them.

“I want people to see that these ideas are based on my research,” she explained. “I don’t just make them up. There really are methods and ways of thinking about things that I hope will open their eyes.

“What’s the takeaway? I want people to start noticing how language is used and then question why, instead of just using their canned common sense,” she said.

Individuals interested in attending the April 4 lecture are asked to RSVP at sts.asu.edu/events or contact the School of Transborder Studies at (480) 965-5091.