The Eggshells of Racism: Tread Lightly


Black women. Two words that, without any additional context, are completely innocuous. There is no further meaning or semantic content within the conventional implicature about the descriptive, “two black women.” Suppose then that additional content is furnished, say, that you had a pleasant exchange on the street with two black women, or that two black women helped you find a Christmas gift for your niece. What ever the situation is, let’s assume that the interaction is a pleasant one. What kind of feelings do you have toward the use of the description? Take note of this, and continue reading.

Let’s now suppose that, while recounting an interaction, the exchange was totally neutral; it was neither pleasant nor unpleasant, for example, “Today I saw two black women in a blue Maserati Cambiocorsa,” or, “There were two black women ahead of me in line at the bank today.” Or perhaps you merely asked two black women who worked at the market where the tea was, and they told you the aisle in which to find it. There seems to be absolutely nothing in these sentences aside from descriptions of people and things that one witnessed. Again, take note of the sorts of feelings or intuitions you have about the use of the descriptions.

Now let us imagine that the interactions were unpleasant. Let’s say while chatting up a friend you recall a particularly negative interaction with two black female employees at a book store, and recount your experience in the following manner, “The two black women were especially unhelpful in finding a copy of A. John Simmons’ “Moral Principles and Political Obligation.” Or perhaps something that many of us have encountered, “The two black women who worked at the DMV counter were very ill-tempered and abrasive.” Now what sorts of feelings do you have toward the descriptions of the people with which there was an interaction? Is there anything different about how the description reads? Do intimations of racism reveal themselves in the descriptions once the interaction became negative? Under what circumstances could one justifiably say that racism is present at all in the description of events?

One may instinctively inquire as to the necessity of including race in the description at all. I would point them to conventions in conversation that are seldom ever noticed or contemplated. Most of us, when recounting interactions with people not of our own race or ethnicity, tend to include the race or ethnicity of the person or persons when describing them. Some may invoke Grice’s supermaxim of quantity (say only as much as is necessary), and aver that more information than necessary was included in the conversation. One may also invoke the supermaxim of relation (say only that which is relevant), and might well argue that the person’s race is irrelevant to the story.

In response one may swiftly counter by adding that Grice’s supermaxim of manner (avoid ambiguity; be clear, but avoid unnecessary prolixity) would be ignored if the description was not sufficiently enriched. The narrator, then, would be justified in the inclusion of racial or ethnic characteristics when describing interactions. This is particularly the case when the narrator desires verifiability, or wishes to impart credibility on the story. Suppose your professor assigns you a reading, and the article is placed on reserve at the library; you are dismayed to find that the reading was misplaced, and is unavailable. When informing your professor that the reading is unavailable, you include precise details of the date and time, the means of search that were unsuccessful, and the employees that you interacted with. This method of enriching the descriptions is very common (e.g. journalism, reports, establishing credibility in story-telling, etc.), and provide a means by which the listener can borrow reference (see Frege’s description theory of reference) so that both parties have a sense of the same person or persons being spoken of. Details of this kind are routine in conversation, and serve to make clear the details of the event, and to provide information that may be used for reference borrowing.

A further rejoinder can be made that using the politically incorrect word, “black,” can and should be rejected in favor of the term “African-American.” This would be a completely ignorant, and irrational assumption on the part of the narrator. To assume that the person is African-American ignores the myriad possibilities of other ancestry, national origin, ethnicity, or otherwise. After all, the person can have Pacific Islander ancestry, and second generation immigrant parents who lived in France where the daughter was born. Using the “politically correct” term in this case would be the least correct term to use, and may actually be justifiably accused of racism, or at the very least, a guilty of making a cadre of distasteful assumptions. Black, or “dark-skinned”, are far more appropriate descriptors because there are no assumptions made or implied therein.

Still, someone with a hypersensitivity to racial issues, political correctness, or pedantry may still be inclined to take umbrage at the descriptive inclusion. I submit that those sensitivities are irrational in the proper sense of the word, that is, that insufficient reason is used to come to the conclusion that racism plays any part in the descriptive inclusion. I also submit that being bothered by it is an inappropriate response to a thoughtful, and parsimonious restriction of assumptions in conversation, and description. Perhaps it is even the case that the issue really at hand here is the latent racism within the listener who subconsciously equates the negativity of the interaction with some inherent set of properties of “black people.” More can be said on this matter, but I will have to take up further discussion on the matter at a later time.

Until then, and to those who level baseless accusations of racism, or accuse careful speakers of uncouth or academically unrefined language, I recommend that you remember the phrase, “Physician, heal thyself!” In more plain spoken terms, read Frege and Grice, check your premises, and get off my ass!!!

Yours in Contemplation,


About facedownphilosophy

Proud recipient of the "Award for Outstanding Excellence in the Field of Unrivaled Superiority"
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