On Culture

On the Subject Of Race, Words Get in the Way

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By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 20, 2008

When the scholar Cornell West talks about politics and popular culture, he flows seamlessly from Aretha Franklin to French philosopher Michel Foucault. With a cadence that is one part Baptist preacher and one part rapper, West never seems to grapple for the right turn of phrase. But at a recent appearance in New York, when the subject turned to race relations and our ability to speak honestly on the topic, words failed him.

We don't have the vocabulary to describe the complicated ways in which race plays out in the culture, West said.

Over the last few weeks of the presidential campaign, that yawning gap in our language skills has been on dazzling display. We've watched as those whose words have been vilified, parsed, misunderstood -- or perhaps understood all too well -- have scuffled to explain what they really meant or what they were trying to say before everything turned so ugly.

The most recent bickering began over Hillary Clinton's remarks suggesting the successes of the civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King Jr. were due in large part to bureaucratic bullying and cajoling by President Lyndon Johnson. Civil rights veterans and pundits accused her of insulting King's legacy. She blamed Barack Obama for misconstruing her remarks. He said he didn't. Finally, at the recent Las Vegas debate, the two agreed an argument about race was doing neither of them any good and found other things to fight about.

The King comments caused the main conflagration, but there have been a host of smaller fires started by the candidates' supporters, independent observers and professional troublemakers.

Andrew Cuomo made the mistake of using "shuck and jive" to describe how candidates dodge questions from the press. He was accused of referring to Obama in racist language. Cuomo has argued that he was talking in general terms and not about any specific candidate -- but perhaps "bob and weave" would have been a better phrase.

There's little room for inappropriate word choices when the specter of race is in the room. And yet, choosing poorly is virtually unavoidable. Words are constantly misinterpreted or taken out of context. Their meanings and impact shift depending on the speaker and the listener.

Before you even open your mouth to talk about race, where's your moral authority? Present your evidence of oppression, your battle scars, your r¿sum¿ of good works or your PhD. We want those who address race to speak from a certain high moral ground, not the swamp. Recent remarks from Robert Johnson, the founder of BET, were antagonizing, in part, because of the messenger. In Johnson's introduction of Clinton in South Carolina, he made an oblique reference to Obama's admitted drug use as a young man. (A reference that Johnson later denied.) And then he went further and compared Obama to Sidney Poitier's portrayal of the reserved Dr. John Wade Prentice in "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner." Johnson, who is African American, used the comparison to highlight what he saw as Obama's avoidance of any discussion of race, of his essentially shirking his responsibilities as a black man.

But Johnson became wealthy by building and then selling a network known for a steady stream of rump-shaking and thug videos. How could he have the temerity to judge anyone else's commitment to African American advancement? Before you could even get to the business of digesting his comments, you had to contend with Johnson's lack of moral authority to stand up and preach.

When it comes to race, language isn't a tool for dialogue, it's a minefield. And it makes one wonder: Is it possible to criticize Obama without someone somewhere finding racial overtones? Is it possible to hurl a plain, old-fashioned insult at him without being called a racist? Maybe not, admits West, an Obama supporter.

Former president Bill Clinton attacked Obama, who has described himself as being consistently against the war in Iraq, by saying "this whole thing is the biggest fairy tale I've ever seen." Somehow "fairy tale" was construed as a racially insensitive remark, because it suggested the Obama ascendancy was improbable. What if someone referred to Hillary Clinton's rise, from a middle-class kid to the first real female presidential contender, as a "Cinderella story"? Would that be akin to sexual harassment?

There are certainly linguistic traps when discussing gender. Never refer to a woman as shrill or hysterical. Even if she is being shrill or hysterical. Those words were regularly used to demean and belittle women. You will be given no benefit of the doubt. You will be labeled a patronizing chauvinist pig.

But no other debate is as linguistically lawless as race. The definitions of words don't matter as much as the perception of them or even the sound of them. Let us all recall the story of David Howard, the D.C. mayoral aide who in 1999 lamented his meager budget for constituent services by noting that he'd have to be "niggardly" in funding various projects. He ended up resigning because fellow employees were insulted. "Niggardly," meaning miserly, sounded too much like a racial epithet, even though there was no linguistic connection.

Even attempts at flattery can take a wrong turn. Consider the comments of Sen. Joe Biden, who last year complimented Obama as "articulate and bright and clean and good-looking." Almost before Biden could close his mouth, he was taken to task for his word choices. "Articulate"? How dare he! Didn't he understand that the word carried with it the historical baggage of condescension and no small amount of paternalism?

Biden's use of the word "clean" to describe Obama comes across as odd and awkward. But what would have been the right term to describe the Illinois senator's style, which does not rise to the level of elegance but is several notches above ordinary? "Chic"? God, no. But even a poor word choice has to be better than silence.

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