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Linguistic Agreements
Written by Sparky Yoo | Published. 2018.07.16 11:57 | Count : 349

Language is powerful. It not only serves as a tool of communication, but also enables us to construct a common basis for a shared reality. Consider, for instance, the way language dictates our visual reality. What color is the sea? Blue. What color is fire? Red. Seeing how interrelated language is to our reality, it is crucial to reflect on our shared linguistic system or lack thereof. Specifically, we must focus on the repercussions of gray areas in our linguistic system. In this article, I cover one context of this issue: the argument about ‘reverse racism.’

[Language Illustration, https://proandroiddev.com/change-language-programmatically-at-runtime-on-android-5e6bc15c758?gi=e62ef3b3a2f9 ]

But what is the importance of this shared reality? Why does it matter if the sea is blue or that fire is red? On a general level, it would be baffling to live in a world where even our most fundamental perceptions were realms of disagreement. For instance, what if we could not agree on a naming system for colors? What if your friend asked you to pick up a red ball from a pile of different colored balls, but your red was actually his blue? In sum, it would be harder to communicate. But this difficulty of communication would have much more severe repercussions than the trivial scenario I laid out.  It would impact our ability to form public policies to enforce order. For instance, consider the common color denomination that dictates rules around automobile movement across many countries, including both South Korea and the United States. It is quite simple. Green means go, yellow means slow, and red means stop. Yet, even this crucial rule could not be enforced if people could not agree on what green, yellow, and red were. 

[Stop Light Illustration, http://getdrawings.com/stop-light-drawing]

I have largely taken this aspect of our lives for granted until a recent conversation with friends over dinner. We were discussing a statistic from the student survey of The Phillipian, our school newspaper, that 3 out of 10 members of the senior graduating class believed in the existence of “reverse-racism.” First off, from previous conversations on school campus, I agree that such a question should not even be proposed in a student survey, since “reverse-racism” is not real. As background knowledge, “reverse-racism” is an imaginary, coined term that says that you can be racist to members of a group that has more historical and institutional social power. For instance, it attempts to assert that blacks can be racist against whites. Reverse-racism is a problematic concept, as it trivializes and erases the institutional power dynamicsthat are prevalent not only throughout history but also in the present.Racism is a term that includes the aforementioned institutional power dynamic within socioeconomic, political, and cultural contexts. By positing that one can be racist towards a privileged group, however, one likens racism to prejudice. In doing so, they undermine the multifaceted layering of racism. 

In our conversation, I vouched against “reverse-racism” right off the bat. My friend took the broad path to settle the disagreement and argued that it was based on one’s definition of racism. In response, I  said that in the context of our school, it cannot exist. Our school’s definition of racism is “A system of oppression involving subordination of members of targeted racial groups by those who have relatively more social power. This subordination occurs at the individual, cultural, and institutional levels.” The institutional emphasis of this definition prevents the existence of racism against a historically socially dominant group. 

Later on, however, I began to think about my argument. It was sustainableunder school rules.The formal definition of racism is strictly written in the document that establishes official school policies. Yet, I realized that such common definition did not exist in larger society. For instance, one of Merriam-Webster’s definitions is “racial prejudice or discrimination.” Likewise, Oxford Dictionaries states, “Prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.” Due to the lack of emphasis on historical and institutional power dynamics, such definitions provide gray space for the aforementioned argument. 

[Racism Illustration, http://www.gcorr.org/escaping-the-cycle-of-individual-racism/]

It is problematic that society at large has not implemented the linguistic rules to talk about not only race, but also a myriad of other topics. I do not have a simple solution to this problem. I wonder about the plausibility of forming and agreeing upon common definitions when talking about power dynamics in relation to people’s identities. However, I want to urge readers to reflect on this linguistic aspect of our lives. 


Sparky Yoo 
Phillips Academy, A

Sparky Yoo  student_reporter@dherald.com

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