Sunday, February 13, 2011

Let's Talk Race & Ethnicity

By: Krystal Flores

Many people, whether they choose to acknowledge it or not, first judge people solely based on the way they speak. Think about it, upon meeting someone for the first time, what are some of the things we notice about them? We automatically become intrigued if the person has an accent, and we can easily find ourselves getting caught up in the realm of deciphering the origin of that accent. We listen carefully to their linguistic practices and specific pronunciation of certain words and we even judge them based on the level of intelligibility of their vocabulary. Everything I just mentioned happens in our minds, within the first few seconds of introduction to the person and we hardly ever realize that we do this. However, language is not the only thing we judge. We use our personal perceptions of their speech in order to infer things about their everyday lives, backgrounds, and where exactly they fall on the social ladder. 
Bonnie Urciuoli’s article “Exposing Prejudice” discusses issues of race and class within ethnic communities based on the language barriers within different groups of people. Urciuoli’s states, “Races and ethnicities are not primordial groups. They are powerful facts of day-to-day social life. The generic white American is, in semiotic terms, unmarked while the non-normative, the racialized or ethnicized person, is marked. Unmarked terms are relatively general and marked terms relatively specific. For example, in the vocabulary of color, unmarked terms include red, blue, or green whereas marked terms include fuschia, aquamarine, or blonde, all used in specialized contexts.” Upon reading this quote one can recognize why colors like fuschia, aquamarine, and blonde stand out amongst the rest; they are vibrant colors, easily noticeable and highly recognizable in a sea of simply red, blue, and green. Just like colors, people who are racially and ethnically “different,” stand out in a sea of all white people. 
As stated earlier, it is rather simple to pick out that someone has an accent, and even easier to think that that accent makes that person inferior to you (considering you do not exhibit an ethnic accent yourself). In this video, George Lopez pokes fun at how every fast food restaurant is run by Latinos. Even though the video is funny, he does highlight some interesting points. For example, when the Latino worker repeats the order back to the white man, he says, “One Yumbo Yack,” and it is obvious that the white man gets rather annoyed by the hispanic man’s speech, responding with, “I don’t think there’s a ‘Y’ in jack.” In addition, George Lopez references the low level of intelligibility of the Hispanic man’s speech by showing how thrown off he became by the fountain drink question. Within this scenario it is easy to laugh and understand why the social norm is white middle-class America and how easy it is for someone to stereotype this Hispanic man and peg his social status as very low on the social ladder. 
It is blatantly obvious that white America is the proper way of life in this situation. However, when it comes to marketing and trying to capture a whole other audience, the Spanish accent is then socially accepted and made into a form of inclusion rather than exclusion. In this video, Optimum Online uses a singer/rapper with a Spanish accent in order to target a Spanish audience. The message being portrayed is clear; phone calls can be made to countries outside the U.S, such as Puerto Rico. Therefore, by having the actors who are singing the song over a Reggaeton beat use Spanish accents it shows viewers that embracing their ethnic side is a good thing, rather than something that needs to be hidden. However, this is a marketing technique, not the actual overall attitude about accents in America. 
Even though America portrays this “land of the free” kind of image, some would say, that the “standard” social norm in America is the white middle-class citizen. This was a social norm that developed in the 1950s around the idea of the model American family. Bonnie Urciuoli agrees with this as well, stating, “At the base of U.S assumptions about ethnicity and race is the idea of the normative or generic American, white, middle-class, English speaking. This persona represents a cultural default setting, the automatic point of comparison for any kind of difference.” Therefore, people with any kind of racial, or ethnicized background feel the constant need to fit into this social norm of American culture. 
Unfortunately, while people try to gain inclusion into American culture, they simultaneously exclude themselves from their own culture. For example, in the article “Homegirls” written by Norma Mendoza-Denton, the Norteños refuse to speak Spanish and embrace the Mexican part of being Mexican-American, while the Sureños constantly speak Spanish and show off that part of who they are. T-Rex, one of “the ‘down’ (committed) Norteña’s . . . also identified language as one of the features that divided Norteños from Sureños, [stating,] Sureños say that we’re embarrassed to speak Spanish, that we um, we betrayed Mexico and we don’t deserve to call ourselves Mexicans.” It is hard to say that any one side of the argument is correct because the division comes from both groups of people: the white middle-class citizens and the racially diverse group. 
However, in this video, the idea of “talking white” and “acting white” is addressed. The girl’s appearance and the overall way she acts is considered white because she is trying to conduct herself in a proper, more socially acceptable manner. She discusses the reasons in which she gets insulted by her own ethnic group of people because she tries to educate herself and use proper grammar. Issues of this nature are some that I’ve never really understood. I think the girl in this video is absolutely correct when she states at the end, “Our race will never survive in this society because we’re constantly bringing EACH OTHER down.” If racially diverse people did not feed into idea that “being white” is the social norm, then maybe we, as a society, would have less of a division amongst one another. 
The ridiculous concept of “talking white” gives “the white man” much more power than deserved. If you really think about it, many times it is the ethnic groups that allow white people to have this superficial power by admitting that white middle-class America is the goal that everyone should aspire to. The way ethnic people admit to this claim is by saying things like “talking white” and “acting white.” They suppress themselves by using such statements because they’re basically admitting that only white people are educated and they are incapable of speaking at an educated level. 

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