What did William Shakespeare mean when he penned, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet”? He meant you could call a rose, a toilet, but it wouldn’t change how sweet the rose smelled. Meaning that the rose is a rose no matter what anyone decides to call it. Shakespeare was trying to bestow upon us, the knowledge that something is what it is. And no matter whatever we decide to call something, it doesn’t change what it is. Well Willy Shakes, we in this country totally disagree with your correct logic. You see we’ve gone from “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” to “you are what I call you and what I call you will break you and keep you down”. We do this because we totally understand that the ability to name is power. We know that words can incite feelings good and bad. In fact, words can be used to convince one group of people to hate and even kill another group of people solely based on what words are used to describe them. We know all these things and we use it to our advantage.
It has come to my attention we the people of this country are more likely to believe what is said about people, religions and cultures, rather than research information about these people for ourselves. In other words, we want to be told what to think. Probably because it’s easier to live in a reality that someone makes for us, than to create a reality based on what we’ve found to be true. Sadly, this way of not thinking has caused all kinds of problems in America. Most of the results from these problems are perpetrated on the poor, those with no power; and this country’s personal favorite scapegoat–people of color. Can you say racism? I would wager that most of the racism in this country happens because of not only because of misinformation, but also undiscovered information. The people controlling mainstream knowledge, or the dissemination of knowledge are the ones shaping Americans’ realities. Most of what we think we know has been filtered through the system of those in power.
I taught human communication for over 18 years at the university level. I have also designed and taught college courses on racism. I want to bring both schools of knowledge together, to show what has been done to us in America. This is for sure a very simplified version of race, reality, images and words, but I think it will make my point. The other ingredient that aids in helping to control how we think or feel, is the feeling of not possessing what we think we should possess. This becomes especially powerful when we’re told that another group of people has what we’re supposed to have.
One school of thought I taught students dealt with how language is only symbolic, but we allow people to give it the power to shape our realities. In other words, the words we use are an important aspect, which dictate how we view reality and our lives. So, if you want to control a person or a group of people, take control of how they view life. If you want to take control of how a person or group of people views life, tell them what to think. To tell them what to think, control the words and the images they use to describe life. The logic almost goes in a circular form, but not quite. Nevertheless, it works on people or groups of people. This is how advertisers get us to buy things we really don’t need. Politicians get us to vote for them, even though they won’t and in most cases can’t possibly make good of their promises. But they learn to tell us what we want to hear.
Now let’s look at language and how it has helped cause a nation to stay in the reality of racism. The words used to describe events are dissected and analyzed before we hear them on the news or see them in the newspaper. For instance, someone sat down and decided, let’s publish the smiling, handsome picture of this young man when we report on the White male student who raped an unconscious female student. Putting this smiling picture out to the public was designed to produce positive words and thoughts about this male student (rapist). It’s called “framing” and I’ll explain it later.
One politician wants the President of the United States to say that the horrible murderous act perpetrated in Orlando, Florida was done by “Radical Islamists”. Using this phrase attacks a very large religious group, for doing something one crazed radical individual did. If this sounds familiar, it’s because in this country we are experts at naming, blaming, labeling and even condemning entire races and cultures, based on the actions of a very few or even one person. By this logic every white guy who disagrees with the things our government does should be suspected of being a potential Timothy McVeigh. Of course, that doesn’t really make any sense, but racism never makes sense. Just in case no one noticed, both mentioned cowardly, terrorist acts were perpetrated by people born in America. These people are called domestic terrorists. Sadly, we are becoming very familiar with the term domestic terrorists.
“Framing” is a term news people use to decide from what angle they want a story to be seen or understood. It’s used to control how the readers or viewers think. Remember the news stories of the O.J. Simpson trial? Major magazines printed pictures of O.J. and in those pictures, he was presented as dark skinned as Wesley Snipes. O.J. has lighter brown skin. Someone decided to frame that picture like that because darker Black men look scarier. If a Black person looks scary White folks think he or she must be guilty. There is a lot White on White crime committed in this country. However, we don’t hear the news people framing “white on white crime”. I’ve never heard a newscaster say, “Another murder today, as White on White crime continues to climb.” But we all know about Black on Black crime. This is one-way racism slowly introduced to our realities, starting at very young ages, therefore shaping our minds, without us even knowing it is happening.
Here’s an example I use when I’m talking with an audience. Years ago, I ran into an old friend from my days in banking. She was a teller who happens to be a White female. She was born and raised in Idaho. She had hit on a little bad luck. She had gotten divorced and still working her low-paying teller job, while trying to support her kids. She needed help. She wanted to make sure that her kids could see a doctor when they needed to. She went to the Health and Welfare folks, and in their wisdom, they told her– and this is according to her– if she would quit her job, they could help her. Now that was stupid advice. But what came out of her mouth next was even more stupid. She looked me in the face and said that if she was Black, they would just give her what she needed. This was in Idaho! Idaho has a Black population of 1%! Of all the Black folks I know, I couldn’t think of anyone who didn’t have a college degree. I couldn’t think of any Black folks on welfare! So, I told her that I was willing to bet my paycheck that we could go stand outside the Health and Welfare office for a week and not see one Black person go in for help. She got upset at me. Truth hurts.
So, where did this otherwise nice woman get her racist thinking? She got it from words and images on television as she was growing up. The words and images on television news about welfare reform were drummed into her head, every evening. Forget the fact that she lived in a city where there was absolutely no way she ever experienced a disproportionate number of Blacks on welfare. Yet, she had formed her one-sided reality of who is more likely to get welfare. Every television news story on welfare reform showed footage of Black and Brown women with multiple kids hanging on them. Hardly ever did the news stories on welfare reform show that White people were also on welfare. Yes, per-capita there are a lot of Blacks and people of color on welfare. That’s due to a lack of proper education and opportunities. But as far as straight-up totals of people on welfare? White people almost out-number African Americans, Hispanics, Asians and Native Americans combined in receiving welfare food stamps. For those of you who need to see proof, see below the Supplemental Nutrient Assistance Program, or SNAP chart. I show this only to give an example of how images and words have affected how negative many people of color are perceived to be, for doing the same thing as many Whites.
Most Americans can’t grasp this truth because the word welfare has become synonymous with Black people or other people of color. The truth of the matter is I’m sad that anyone has to be on welfare. But my point is that the American media and individuals have used many words to destroy the image of many of its people. Once those words and images are in our head, we become part of the ongoing problem of putting people from a certain group, religion or race in a easily describable, bowl, in which it doesn’t take much thinking to access them. The only way we can get ourselves out of this type of mindless thinking is to learn to think for ourselves. There are many impartial sources of information at our disposal. They aren’t as well-known as those sources that have an agenda of control, but they are out there.
The point I’m trying to make is what we say, the words we use and the images we show affects not only the people they’re directed at, those very words and images also affect how we and our children view the world. Hopefully, what I’ve written sparks you to be careful of whom you listen to. Get to a mental place where you question what you think you know. Sadly, there’s a reason why very young kids of all races, point to the dark brown baby doll as ugly and mean, when they themselves have never seen any such mean actions from people of color. However, our kids and young people do hear every negative word we say and every distorted image we show them. Then, we curiously wonder why our children grow up thinking that every immigrant is a terrorist, that all poor people are lazy or deciding to call a rose a toilet. If you’re a Bible Believer, what was one of the first powers God gave Adam? Adam was given the power to name all of the animals, giving him dominion over them. Well, except for that silver-tongued serpent.