Sunday, April 13, 2008

Loaded words and contested terms

You can imagine that as an English professor I believe that words matter, that language matters. And that what you call things matters quite a bit. Take, for example, my preference for using "Asian American" to refer to people of Asian ancestry/descent rather than "Oriental." It's actually not just my preference; a whole movement in the late 1960s was formed, in part, around wanting to affirm the place of Asians in America and to dismiss the notion of people as objects (because remember: only rugs are Oriental).

Two of my most recent posts have touched on the issue of loaded words and contested terms. The April 11 post about the use of the term "Concentration Camp" to talk about where Japanese Americans were detained during WWII has sparked some interest from another blog, "Is That Legal?," where Eric Muller (remember Professor Muller? I gave a plug for his excellent book American Inquisition: The Hunt for Japanese American Disloyalty during World War II) provides more nuanced examination for thinking through the use of the term "concentration camp"--particularly its charged nature and yet why it IS an accurate term to describe the situation of Japanese Americans during WWII--click here for the link to "Is That Legal?"

[If you are reading this Eric, thanks for plugging my post/blog on your blog--I'm honored!]

And in the April 12 post asking when Asian immigrants become Asian Americans, a commenter and fellow blogger, John B. of "Domestic Issue," began an interesting exchange with another commenter about the use of the phrase "miscegenation."

Now, I don't know if any of you were reading my blog this summer, but that exact phrase came up in my August 2 post relating a racist comment made to me by a woman about purity and Asian Canadians. I said in the post: "That word has such a controversial connotation--rooted in a history of race baiting." This is the history of the word:

Originally coined in 1863, the word first appeared on a hoax pamphlet entitled “Miscegenation: The Theory of the Blending of the Races, Applied to the American White Man and Negro.” Conceived by two New York journalists, David Goodman Croly and George Wakeman, the pamphlet was an attempt to depict the Republican party explicitly as proponents of inter-racial marriage and implicitly with the propagation of mixed-race children. By doing so, the hope was that voters would reject President Lincoln in his re-election campaign, for the man who supported the emancipation proclamation was also obviously in favor of promoting not only equality of the races but inter-mixing as well. Thus from its inception, miscegenation was a word linked with political propaganda and fear mongering for the purposes of supporting segregation and defying racial equality

[taken from a talk I gave five years ago at Southern U.]

So here's the question for you, dear readers: Can loaded words and contested terms be rehabilitated? Can they escape, in the case of "concentration camp" the tragic and overwrought associations with one of the worst genocides of the 20th century? Can we use a term, like "miscegenation" to simply mean "inter-racial" without invoking its etymological roots in race baiting and its historic use as a word associated with negativity, rancor, and hatred (because whenever "miscegenation" was invoked in the mid to late 20th century it was usually done in the context of "anti-miscegenation" laws, ie: laws prohibiting inter-racial marriage, or white racist Southerners invoking the fear of "miscegenation" as a rationale for school segregation.

I suppose a few more questions to consider are:

*Why is this loaded word or contested term being used in current, contemporary usage?
*What is the purpose of this rehabilitation?
*Who is trying to use this term and for what purpose?
*Is there another term that is as accurate/precise in its meaning as the contested term? Why is it important to use the contested term rather than the less loaded word?

I'd love to hear from anyone out there with an opinion...anyone???


CVT said...

I'm still waiting to read John B.'s explanation before I go too far into this, but here's my quick off-the-cuff take:

I think there are definitely terms that can be used, instead. I think the easiest is "interracial" with a relevant descriptor attached to it (i.e. "interracial marriage," "interracial sex," or whatever). If that sounds a bit awkward, "cross-cultural" could suffice. I don't know. "Miscegenation" just feels along the lines of "Oriental" to me. Certainly not along the lines of major ethnic slurs, but not feeling good, either. More of the - "do people REALLY still say that?" - than the other kind of reaction.

And - if people are going to try to reclaim the term, then I would say that it's got to be the people the term is referring to do so. Nobody would even think about "re-claiming" the N-word FOR black people, so it would have to be a group of mixed folks that took on "miscegenation" for me to sit well with it.

That said, I don't know John B.'s explanation yet, so there might be more to it than I am aware . . .

Poor Charlotte said...

The "n-word" also came to mind for me when I read this post. Still controversial, but it has most certainly been rehabilitated, at least by some of the population against whom it was used.

I brought this topic up in the classroom when I taught with Emily Bernard's "Teaching the N-Word," and the generational/racial differences with the answers was amazing.

Usage does change with time and context, but it's always important to acknowledge the word's history, and how you are attempting to redefine it, and why.

On another note: I was looking at makeup online, and some line, I forget which, offered mineral powder in "golden oriental." I couldn't believe it.

Were they really able to sell this product with that marketing? Were consumers ok with that? That is a problem for me.

John B. said...

Jennifer (and cvt), I'll have a post up tonight (probably late) and post the link to it here.
Thanks again for these questions: they get to the very essence of some claims I want to make about how racial admixture is depicted and discussed in art and literature throughout the Americas, and dialogue about them will certainly be helpful for my work.

John B. said...

Later than I had intended, but here is my post.

Genepool said...

The nice thing about America is that whatever term we decide is appropriate today will likely be exchanged for something else down the road.

"Miscegenation" basically means the same thing as "Interracial" with only time and peoples perception of its descriptive intent to really differentiate the two words.

"Crippled" and "Handicapped" are similar examples. I am almost positive that in my lifetime that we will see other seemingly innocuous words replaced as individuals and groups decide they are inappropriate, for whatever reason.

I'm not saying I approve or disapprove of the word "miscegenation" because before reading your post I had honestly never even heard the term used. I'm just saying for all that these usages matter to people now they will likely, over time, be reevaluated and replaced. Which is, in my opinion, pretty damn funny.

baby221 said...

I really don't think you can save miscegenation, but if it were to happen at all it would have to come out of a movement of mixed-race folk as cvt suggested. The lgbt movement has reclaimed queer and dyke, some women are in the process of reclaiming bitch and slut. I guess it could happen, but I'm not sure it's a word I'd ever use because it just rubs me the wrong way. I'm a much bigger fan of interracial and/or interethnic.

Jennifer said...

I appreciate everyone who left comments on this topic, because I think this continues to be a vexed subject and I appreciate the thoughtfulness to which everyone approached this subject.

I've just posted a lengthy comment on John B.'s blog, so if you're curious, I'd go to "Domestic Issue" for a continuation of the "miscegenation" usage there.

What I will say in this space is that I agree with both CVT and Baby221--I don't believe, personally as well as professionally, that "miscegenation" is a word that can escape its etymological roots and consistent negative/pejorative usage. And if one were to undertake such a project, it would have to be a mass movement coming from inter-racial couples or from mixed-race people.

But I suppose, more to the point, I remain unconvinced for trying to rehabilitate it for common usage in the 21st century. I do think that John B., in his own academic project, SHOULD use this word and SHOULD investigate "miscegenation" and its use as a concept and tool of the state and cultural apparatus--I think any historic project that is looking at inter-racial relationships in the 17th-19th centuries would be remiss in not referring to "miscegenation" since that's the terminology that was in use during that time period.

But in the late 20th C and 21st century, I don't see a place for "miscegenation" as a word to simply refer to "inter-racial" couples.

And I would disagree with Genepool that inter-racial and miscegenation are inter-changable--they really aren't. I don't see "inter-racial" as simply a more "pc" or 21st century version of miscegenation. I'm not sure when "inter-racial" came into the American lexicon, but I think it makes a HUGE differece that the word "miscegenation" had such distinctly "American" roots in racism and politics--and that it was a phrase almost always associated with things that were negative--anti-miscegenation, agitating against miscegenation--miscegenation as a way to quickly malign someone and to suggest that miscegenated people were a blight on the American society. It is a word that is so filled with a history of racism and race hatred--a word we should remember was employed skillfully by segregationists--that to my mind, it's negative history can't be forgotten, and actually shouldn't be forgotten.

[she steps off soapbox now]

The last thing I'll leave you with is directed to Charlotte:

"REALLY??? Golden Oriental???"

UGH. If you find the name of the makeup company, Charlotte, I'd love to know.

John B. said...

Just a quick thank-you, first of all, for your very thorough and thoughtful response over at my place. You've given me much to think about that, in a couple of days, I'll have some time to address properly.

The earliest use of "interracial" according to the OED is from 1888--as an adjective for the substantive "conflict." The earliest use given for that word used within a sexual context--"interracial couple"--is 1972(!). More research required, of course, but I wonder if "interracial" was adopted as a response to Loving vs. Virginia's finding that anti-miscegenation laws were unconstitutional.

Shoot. This is far more compelling than the papers I have to grade, but duties call. Still: thanks again for this discussion.