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OnWords: A Racist Linguistic Environment

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We shouldn’t be surprised that Paula Deen lost her culinary empire because of racist remarks during an interview. We should, however, be surprised by the media’s reaction.

Deen grew up in the segregated South and is, to a certain degree, a product of a racist linguistic environment.

What’s at issue with Paula Deen isn’t so much about how our current culture views race: it wouldn’t have been a problem if most of America didn’t agree that what she said was wrong, and Deen herself claims to line up with the idea (if not the language) of racial equality. What’s at issue is the way our linguistic environment feeds back into racist thinking.

After all, language is still the most available and accessible way people depict the world. Even now, when visual communication is as easy as whipping out your smartphone and snapping a picture, most meaning is still communicated through words. Plus, the contexts that communicate the meanings of visual images remain linguistic.

So if the culture from which you come posits having black servants as a visible sign of gracious living—that is, if your linguistic environment is racist—the words you use to depict that idea are also going to be racist. In the context of an interview, when verbal immediacy is the rule, those are the words that, unsurprisingly, will spring to mind.

None of this excuses Deen’s words, of course, but may help explain them.

Most important, the role of our linguistic environment demonstrates how insidious racist language is, reinforcing the oppressive assumptions we are still working so hard to overcome.