By Ilene Palacios
Throughout the progression of the film Malcolm X – directed by Spike Lee and based on parts of Malcolm X’s autobiography – there are many moments of realization and change in Malcolm, starting from when he was still Malcolm Little/“Detroit Red” to the man he was when he died after he began to realize the universality of many human conditions in the face of oppression and power.
One of these moments occurred towards the beginning of the film when Malcolm was reading words from the dictionary with his soon-to-be spiritual mentor, Baines.
See from 8:00-10:00 at the following video link:
Baines and Malcolm note the difference between the various lexical meanings of “black” and “white” according to the dictionary. The definitions to not directly pertain to race or skin color, but even in their basic definitions of the colors and the essence of what they represent, there are very obvious differences. They assess the meanings and take them to be obviously mapped onto the races ‘White’ and ‘Black’ (in this case, proper nouns/adjectives). At the end of the clip, Malcolm and Baines attribute the negative definitions and mapping of the terms to the dictionary being “written by White folks” and Malcolm turns to the author page to find his assumptions confirmed.
We have discussed in class how language has many levels of creation and perpetuation; while a large degree of language structures are created at the personal exchange level, they, as well as lexical meanings can also be dictated from above, from elites who have the power and control of institutions to standardize language via public policy (i.e. education, laws) and other linguistic resources, such as dictionaries. Dictionaries have this authority about them, a correctness (i.e. of spelling, of meaning) and an authenticity.
In the Hill reading entitled “Linguistic Appropriation: The History of White Racism is Embedded in American English” the author analyzes a number of examples of linguistic appropriation of other forms of language from different historical points in U.S. History, particularly of Native American languages, Black English Vernacular and Spanish. In the introduction he argues:
“In linguistic appropriation words are commodified and become property, with their meanings and uses determined by their owners. To impose these meanings and uses, speakers of the target languages must dominate speakers of the donor language. The dominant groups must control the institutions through which the linguistic resources circulate...[and] both formal and informal mechanisms through which the linguistic behavior of the donor population can be regulated.
White racism in the United States exhibits this kind of dominance...it must involve elites...” (Hill,
While in the film’s example there was no appropriation of Black language that is controlled and circulated by Whites to achieve a form of racism, there is still certainly a commodification of language, institutional and informal control of language and a, alleged subsequent dominance of a group through meanings, using language as a mechanism.
In their article entitled, “Linguistic Ideology and Linguistic Differentiation”, Irvine and Gal wrote that their main concerns were within the sociolinguistic process, the dynamics of sociolinguistic differentiation and the language ideologies structures and consequences. They add that these consequences concern boundaries which can contribute to language change, scholarship or academic descriptions of language (i.e. metalinguistic) and those which concern politics (Irvine/Gal, 36).
Through the objectification of words into a list available and authenticated in a dictionary), there is a similar objectification of their meanings. Even so, the meanings are still subject to change, as language is always changing. Both words with meanings implicit to people and those that directly call out people can be used, in their own ways for hurt and ultimately control and disenfranchisement.
In the film scene Baines is trying to show Malcolm of the relativity of language and how it can adhere to those in power, and how even in its neutral form can be ultimately used to portray a people in a certain way, used as a form of control. One could make a connection between the difference in the meaning of black/white in a non-racialized form could be mapped onto people when the terms are used in a human, racial context, i.e. Black people would be “dark”, “ominous” etc. and White people would be “innocent” or “pure”.
So what is worse and more hurtful overall: words whose meanings can underlie negative ideas that can be mapped onto people, or words that are directly used to negatively and hurtfully refer to people?
Comedian Louis C.K. memorably referenced the philosophy that ‘there-are-no bad-words-we-make-them-bad’. He quite hilariously talks about this notion in relation to some ‘offensive words’: the vulgar and heavy “C-word” and the historically-heavy and oftentimes controversial “N-word” (and before this section of the act, the use and folk meanings of word “f**got”):
C.K. – utilizing the all-cleansing form of comedy – talks about words being used (or not used) because their lexical definitions are offensive (or not offensive). He provides two different examples, one that doesn’t have a racial or recent historical weight to it and one that does, speaking to how words can become offensive for different reasons and how the levels of offensiveness can or cannot vary and change to certain people and over time.
Can we define the popular positive or communal usage of the “N-word” in some circles as mere appropriation? Does appropriation always need to be from a ‘dominant’ group? Shall we call it “reverse reappropriation” like how people use the term “reverse racism”; is it a one-way street?
If you consider the appropriation conception of “flattening” in relation to this situation, you might argue for appropriation. In the Hill article an example of “flattening” was giving regarding redefining of certain Native American terms for symbolic gains, as was the case for for Ojibwas word “basadinaa” which meant valley, and was changed in English to mean “crown of the valley” or “key of the valley”, possibly to make the area seem greater and more beautiful (Hill, 5). In this case, those languages were appropriated and to a large degree eradicated, but in both the cases of the “N-word” and “basadinaa” usage and lexical meanings and use of certain words were altered in similar ways for positive gain.
Can a word from a ‘dominated’ group or that is pretty much inherently offensive ever shake its historical meaning so easily, i.e. without near language and people eradication first? If language can be standardized from above, is the elite definition of the word and the elite ideology about language use (i.e. appropriateness or offensiveness of using certain words) what really gets implanted into language users’ minds when they use or even just think about a word? Whose lexical meanings matter more and who has the right to say a word is offensive? (And with the internet, whose information is even ‘elite’?)
Some historical ‘clarification’ or extrapolation and inclusion of quotes that use the word are not present in the online Merriam-Webster definition of this word. For the “N-word” (the repeated use of which would annoy Louis C.K. according to the above clip) there is a large degree of explanation as to how wrong, offensive and inappropriate it is; although, there is no reference to use of the word when it ends in the letter ‘a’. Merriam-Webster might be referencing n***a when it calls the “N-word” “usually offensive” instead of “now probably most offensive word in the English language” as Dictionary.com does; this might make the former more objective, current and less moralizing or just making lighter of the word – it’s hard to tell.
Please see all of the definition and interesting historical reference of this word at the following link: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/NIGGER.
In order to help him learn about his oppression while simultaneously educating him, Baines has Malcolm copy the terms and definitions of every word in the dictionary. When one has little else to go on besides the language that is not set in stone but is printed and validated in books and institutions, one has little choice but to learn the language, and, if one is so inclined, to use that knowledge as both a universal point of reference but also one that points to power mechanism, subtle or obvious as they may be. A lot can be learned, but like Collins wrote about, even expert opinion can be wrong, or at the very least not one group’s language ideologies necessarily work for another group. Like in the case of the “N-word” and BEV, language meaning and use can be changed (respectively) to fit other needs and desires of some members of a group who may not have as much power and control as elites, but can at least affirm themselves and gain recognition as legitimate voices, and do so in their own words.