There isn’t a lot Ferguson can be thankful for in this Thanksgiving season. In fact, many have lost their shops due to rioting. I’m not going to speak on justice for Michael Brown because I do not feel qualified to address police procedures and the pain in that community. I’m neither a member of the police force nor a member of the community. All I can say is that I pray nightly for this very broken community so that somehow peace and order can be restored. What I can share is only out of my own experience as a minority.
As I browse my Facebook, I begin to see various words being used to describe the situation and the people involved. Of great interest to me are the words “savages” or “animals” to describe young black men who rioted. I notice also that some of my black friends take great offense at the terms while most of my white friends didn’t really care either way but gave those terms non-racist definitions. In this situation, I have to side with my black friends simply because those were the same terms slave traders used to dehumanized their subjects. In the infamous Willie Lynch letter delivered in the 1700’s, the blacks were “uncivilized savage n_____s” who needed breaking in. Comparison of slaves to animals and properties goes as far back as Aristotle and beyond. These words are pregnant with venom. Their impact on a person is decidedly negative, thus creating yet more unnecessary tension between whites and blacks. The dictionary definition is simply not enough without understanding of some of the historical contexts in which such words were used. Words can heal, but words can also kill with their impact. The intent may not be racist, but the impact could very well be.
During my discussion on race in an old event last year around this time regarding the way Rick Warren handled Asians both here and abroad, I have learned an excellent lesson from a black brother. Let’s call him Brother T. One day, I was having a chat with Brother T just to get his take on the whole race issue and my critique of Rick Warren’s Red Guard meme. He was a gracious, godly and supportive friend. He listened and gave me his opinion, but one thing from that conversation stood out for me. I shared with him a statement I was going to write in my blog, “Perhaps Rick Warren (and many white Christians) didn’t take us seriously because we Asians are just too passive. If the same thing happened in the black community, riots would have broken out.” By “riots”, of course, I was using the term in a metaphorical sense. After all, who riots over racially offensive memes? My brother gently looked over the statement and made a simple correction, “I would say, the black community would’ve marched.” Now, there’s a huge rhetorical difference between rioting and marching. Rioting evokes crazy people doing damage to properties and lives. Marching evokes Martin Luther King Jr. I’m grateful that I’ve consulted my friend before I put up the blog. I sure don’t want to give off the wrong message. I’m also grateful for his graciously calling out the unintentionally racist hyperbole I used for the impact I never intended. After all, words matter because all words are used within (and not apart from) historical context. In fact, you don’t even have to be racist to use metaphors and words that are racially charged. It helps to have those impacted by such words help us and give us guidance or correction.
So, before we have a fruitful conversation about race, we must first think about the word picture behind what we say. We must also form communities of friends where people from diverse culture and speak to each other honestly and graciously. Words and their rhetorical impact are often one of the reasons for misunderstanding, anger and even hatred. We must use words wisely.