What We Say: Thousands of Small Cuts

By Cheryl Howard, Ph.D.

Under this President, there has been a predictable rise in white nationalism, hate crimes, and the soul-crushing violence against Spanish-speaking immigrants and anyone who might sound or look like one.  The August 3 attack on the people of our bi-national community woke us up to the realization that legality or illegality was never the real issue; language and skin color was, as the black population in the U.S. has long known.  Many far more articulate and thick-skinned than I have dissected, addressed, and contextualized these sentiments and behaviors.

I hope to use this space, instead, to address smaller, more hidden behaviors, invisible to most except to those who are targeted, behaviors that the media are not addressing, because they are either complacent or complicit.  These behaviors have been termed micro-aggressions, a term that was first used in the 1970s by a psychiatrist, Dr. Chester Pierce, and defined by Columbia professor Deral Sue as

brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color.”   

Some examples of racial microaggressions can be found at the following website: https://sph.umn.edu/site/docs/hewg/microaggressions.pdf.  Even better, read Claudia Rankine’s prose/poetry book, Citizen.

Linguistic anthropologist Jane Hill coined another term similar to microaggression as she turned her attention to the racialized use of Spanish by Anglos in Latinx communities in the southwestern part of the U.S.: mock Spanish.  Web sites that examine mock Spanish and its influence include the following: https://www.kibin.com/essay-examples/the-prevalence-of-mock-spanish-in-the-american-media-zbbf20N7; https://www.latinorebels.com/2016/10/20/trump-relies-on-mock-spanish-to-talk-about-immigration-opinion/; https://languagesinconflict.wordpress.com/tag/mock-spanish/.   

My understanding of the terms is that privileged white speakers can say and do small things that indicate superiority to or derision of minorities without being held accountable.  It can be disguised as humor or ignorance or deemed to be irrelevant by the speaker.  Because each of these events is small and responsibility for them easily dismissed, the impact of them is often overlooked, except by the people who have been affected.   And even as most of the news media outlets have been quick to decry the overt assaults on our pluralistic society, they have been silently complicit in it.  Now is the time to come to grips with this issue.  For example, how many persons of color (or women, who coincidentally [or not] have not been perpetrators of violent behavior) host prime-time television news programs?  Or can you find token representatives more easily in the early morning, late at night, or on weekends?  How many persons of color are on the editorial boards of the Washington Post and the New York Times?  Why?  And if persons of color were more valued in the media, would it not be more difficult for them to be devalued in everyday life?

When momentous events such as the Walmart shooting in El Paso happen, do ace reporters who speak only English parachute to communities of color and come to speak with those who speak English or use local interpreters, or is someone, anyone, who speaks Spanish sent?  Are there enough Spanish speaking reporters in newsrooms, on television?  Moreover, are Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban and other Spanish-speaking journalists equally capable of reporting on all events involving Hispanic populations just because they speak Spanish?   Are Anglo reporters with deep community ties competent to or barred from speaking about local events?  Who decides?

One of the maxims drilled into print journalism students is get the name right, spell it right, double check it, and get the affiliation or title correct as well.  Unfortunately, no such rule is applied to the pronunciation of persons interviewed or mentioned in multi-media platforms.  Some stumbling over unfamiliar words may be understandable, but not something so intimate as a person’s name.  Every instance of mispronunciation of people’s names is a hostile act.  I have even heard journalists mispronounce co-worker’s names, crossing the line between covert and overt aggression.  Some people with non-Anglo names either mispronounce their own names or shorten or anglicize their names to better fit into the dominant society and make their names easier for monolingual English speakers to say; I applaud those who don’t.

Ironically, French names seem so much easier for the media to pronounce than Spanish names.  I contend that it is not linguistically more difficult, but that it is socially more grievous to mispronounce French words.  This is the same reason that British accents appear to be so cultured while Spanish accents often strike Anglo Americans as uneducated.  I am appalled every time a new, slightly difficult name hits the newsroom. Khashoggi died not only of the deadly cuts administered by Saudi murderers, but by the thousands of small cuts to his memory in the way we pronounced his name.  In Texas, German was once more prevalent than English.  Could this be a reason why Schwarzenegger just rolls off the tongue, or alternatively and partly in jest, why Jane Hill (mentioned above) titled one of her scholarly articles “Hasta La Vista Baby?” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4ZosMKUC3zk

How did we, as a nation of immigrants, come to a place of not caring enough about our neighbors to take the time to even say their names correctly?  To believe that a person who speaks another language doesn’t belong in this country?   When bilingual speakers are hesitant to use a language other than English in public spaces?  Whatever happened to our country’s traditional motto, the Latin phrase on the Great Seal of the United States: e pluribus unum (from many, one)?

This country has a long history of disrespecting people’s names, changing or inventing them to suit themselves or the government’s need for paperwork.  Names were changed at Ellis Island by inspectors, by immigrants themselves or by the shipping companies who brought the immigrants there. In the plantation south, slaves were given names of their owners or the plantations they were sold to.  Native Americans were given names that suited officialdom.  This is our legacy of conquest and domination, despite the fact that our country abounds with place names that originated in Native American and Spanish and French words.  About half of our state’s names have derivations of Native words, even Kentucky (derived from the Iroquoian word kentahten meaning “land of tomorrow”).  I will leave any implications of this knowledge to the reader.

As we reflect on the current horrific events happening around this country, and the fear it has engendered, not only in the places of violent occurrences, but everywhere, we need to examine the contributions our own voices have in allowing this climate to foster the hate we are now able to see more clearly.  And those with stronger voices and larger audiences such as the news media especially need to reflect.  It is, with effort, possible to stop being part of the problem and become part of the solution.

First, after both acknowledgement and a desire to correct shortcomings, there must be greater representation of all segments of our society; diversity has been and always will be our strength, not our undoing.  Second, newsrooms across the country need to do some soul searching.  To reiterate a previous statement:  if persons of color were more valued in the media, would it not be more difficult for them to be devalued in everyday life?  When journalists of color are restricted to stories of color,  it is reminiscent of women journalists being relegated to the social/gossip/style pages or programs.  Third, a course, even a short one, in phonetics for journalists can train their ears to hear the subtleties of spoken language.   Finally, we need to keep an eye (and an ear) out for our own bias, and whenever and wherever micro-agressions occur, call it out, call BS.

This essay originally appeared August 22, 2019 in Borderzine.com. Dr. Cheryl Howard gave us permission to publish it in El Paso News. Dr. Howard came to the University of Texas at El Paso in 1989 from the University of New Mexico and taught Sociology at UTEP for 21 years. She retired in 2010 as Associate Professor Emerita.

One thought on “What We Say: Thousands of Small Cuts

  1. I regularly teach Jane Hill’s book (“The Everyday Language of White Racism”); it’s a real eye-opener, especially for monolingual Anglo students. I’ve also written to NPR on multiple occasions about their frequent mispronunciation of Spanish names. If they can pronounce Ahmadinejad, you’d think they could pronounce Guevara!

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