My Turn: Language, tone and race

Published 12:47 am Monday, January 16, 2017

By Whitney Peckman

Recently Ms. Carolyn Logan spoke at City Council’s open comment session, as she frequently has in the past several months, about the unchecked violence in our community. She also spoke about something else: about language.
Ms. Logan related a short conversation she had had with Mayor Alexander following a council meeting where Ms. Logan (and many others) had spoken out about the recent senseless murder of 7-year-old A’Yanna Allen.  According to Ms. Logan, after that council meeting, Mayor Alexander asked Ms. Logan a question: “Who do you think council is more apt to help —  people who scream at them or people who just come in here …?”
Aside from the fact that the question is loaded with implications about who and why council will or will not help individuals, it screams of the cultural, racial, social chasm that exists in this city. It screams of a not-so-long-ago history of blacks having to keep their heads (and their voices) low, don’t offend, don’t get out of your place. The subliminal message in that question — “Who do you think council is more apt to help…” — is a threat. Nothing less.
I have no doubt that Mayor Alexander did not intend that to be the message. I don’t think she is mean-spirited. I do think the question shows an implicit bias. But did she, did others on the council, do we, consider the affects that our language, our tone has on people of color, or of other ethnic backgrounds, or religions other than the dominant white Christian culture? Mayor Alexander certainly thought about how Ms. Logan’s language and tone affected her — that’s clear from her response.
“You people” is a trigger. “Boy” is a trigger. Such loaded language alerts black people. If you are conscious you will see tension in eyes and body. You, as a white person, may not understand that your careless words are heard as intent to subjugate, to show that you are the alpha dog, that the black person is less than. I say this with experience. At a recent City Council meeting where I spoke about the fear that is felt in the black community when police show up in riot gear, I said (not wanting to use “guys” which seemed disrespectful to me in this situation), “….what do you think those boys feel when …”…and from the back I heard someone say, “men.” In that moment I knew what I had done, and despite the fact that I am deeply engaged in racial justice and equity, I had offended my friends.
Ms. Logan doesn’t go about her daily life “screaming” at people. She goes about her life, as do I and most other people, without raising her voice. But when one reaches the point of frustration many of us are now at, we tend to raise our voices. But why would Ms. Logan’s be called “screaming,” when I, myself, have raised my voice at council meetings and I get FB messages thanking me for my “passion.” Councilman Hardin is often derided for his direct speech. He is “heard” as “loud.” Mr Hardin, himself, has spoken well and often about the level of frustration he feels at not being heard.
What does “not being heard” mean? It means we are not seeing anything but an apparently superficial declaration of interdependence, which, in fact, leaves a very open door for “private” conversations and decisions outside of the legal constrictions of government..
What we do hear, literally, is a mayor asking the question referenced above, and a police chief stating that he is “tired of you people talking about being afraid of police.” Both of these statements were not “screamed,” but what, exactly, do you think they imply?
 I would put forth that Kenny Hardin and Ms. Logan (and many others) are “heard” by way too many in the white community as “screaming,” “bullying” and demanding …. after all, “What do THEY want now?” “What do you people want now?”
If your response, at this moment, is something like … “Oh, for Pete’s sake, now we can’t say ‘they’?” or “Get over it!” or “What does she think? That this violence doesn’t affect us?”— if any of those are close to your response, I suggest that you are so detached from other races, ethnicities and religions, that you are incapable of seeing that what your culture has embedded in you is exactly the method of subjugation and subsequent oppression. Do not say, “I didn’t have slaves!” If you cannot, or will not, acknowledge that culturally imposed language and history makes you the slave master, you may never understand what you (like those quiescent Germans before you) are capable of.
Whitney Peckman lives in Salisbury.