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The things they carry

Observer Viewpoint | Wednesday, March 2, 2005

One of my favorite poems, “Incident” by Countee Cullen, characterizes the personal pains of racism for receivers of oppression. In the piece, the protagonist – a small eight-year-old black boy – encounters a white youth of similar age on a Baltimore street. The white youth calls our protagonist the most pejorative term used against blacks without provocation or discernable reason. Most potently, this brief poem ends with the speaker reflecting on the interaction: “I saw the whole of Baltimore, from May to December, of all the things that happened there, that’s all that I remember.” As Cullen expresses in verse, a single incident of racial oppression has the ability to overshadow a person’s perception of the world and of himself.

The powerlessness felt by targets of any type of prejudice is debilitating and staggering. Language is crucial in this discussion. Our tone, manner and voice all communicate stereotypes and prejudice. Further, certain words – like the pejorative “n-word” from Cullen’s poem – carry centuries of oppressive, violent and destructive baggage. I would like to consider the effect of these words on people of the oppressed groups. People who utter these discriminatory words have various motives, yet their use, whether maliciously or inadvertently, often results in degradation of the oppressed group. We lack, in the broader discourse of prejudice, a way to deconstruct systems of oppression through language, as well as a process of addressing the real feelings of dehumanization. The private pain of the oppressed is sacrificed and silenced as society endeavors to make racism, sexism and heterosexism unimportant and invisible through political correctness or ignorance.

I have heard many stories of Notre Dame students suffering this private pain of prejudice. While some would have us believe we are beyond the days of racial subjugation, people still find themselves in isolated situations due to derogatory words. In my experience, two of my worst days here have been a result of such language use. As a sophomore, someone from my residence staff flippantly insinuated I thought myself light enough to “pass” for white. As a light-skinned black person, passing and racial identity have played big parts in my development. During that incident in my dorm, I felt betrayed by Notre Dame’s promises of family and isolated in my feelings of outrage.

The second time was in a classroom this school year. A fellow student used a racially pejorative word to illustrate her point. While the student’s intentions were not malicious, the effect of hearing the word in class outside of the context of an explicitly race-related conversation was jarring. My peer’s unwitting utterance of the “n-word” illuminated the feelings of exclusion and discrimination I and other minorities feel in small doses sometimes daily. Being the only black, Latino or Asian in a class, being expected to speak or represent your race during class lectures, never seeing religious icons reflecting your ethnic heritage and being assumed to be an athlete based on skin color all weigh on the hearts and minds of minorities.

We must not underestimate the ability of language to exert the forces of domination and hate on others. As reflected in the “Laramie Project,” whenever someone calls another a derogatory name, that is a violent act. That comment, in the context of a play about the murder of a young gay man, gives us pause. When we recognize language as a tool to exert pain on others, we have a frame through which to evaluate our actions and their consequences. Seeking reconciliation when we harm others with words repairs a relationship and opens a place for discussion and growth. To further ignore our mishaps in speech adds to the violence of our words.

We look to a day, as a goal, when these words and their speakers no longer have the power to disrupt people’s lives. Until then, what can we do to have constructive discussions of modern prejudice with the words of hate? Perhaps discussing the origins and uses of these words to understand their continued effect, agreeing on parameters for discussion that uphold everyone’s dignity while still encouraging controversial ideas and responding to insecurity as the discussion progresses may be helpful foundational rules. We can create in our communities and in ourselves spaces in which matters of race, sex or sexual orientation can be discussed constructively and non-violently. I charge all of us, as our student leaders look for systemic answers to group divides, to be proactive vessels of the change we need at Notre Dame. Through our deeds and our words we either do the work of love and inclusion, or of hate and violence towards others.

Kamaria Porter is a junior history major. Her column appears every other Wednesday. Contact her at kporter@nd.edu.

The views of this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.