The Wisdom from Ignorant Utterances

January 13th, 2010

Senator Harry Reid sure stepped in it with his comments about then candidate Obama’s skin color and dialect. At first glance, his comments seem insensitive and ignorant. At second and third glance, too. And he should be praised for it.

In my research, teaching, and consulting on leadership and diversity over the past two decades, I have seen people make many mistakes when in the midst of race talk. And I am particularly intrigued when white people make those mistakes. Sometimes it happens because the person is maliciously racist. Sometimes it happens because they are earnestly oblivious. And sometimes it happens because well-meaning people have begun to learn the nuance of race and racial difference and they are trying to figure out how to talk about it.

I can’t say which camp Senator Reid falls in, but my hunch is that he is roaming around somewhere in the second and third camps. His comments were probably wrong and his vocabulary outdated (“Negros” in the 21st century?!?) His remarks suggest that an African American could only be a viable candidate if he or she has lighter skin tone and possesses the ability to hide or deemphasize an African American dialect in favor of a the so-called “standard” American English dialect. Such an assumption underestimates the potential for good, thoughtful people of all races—but especially white people—to choose their leaders based primarily on the person’s record and potential to truly be a great leader.

But it’s just wrong to pretend that Senator Reid is simply some racist kook from Nevada, and that no one who was good and responsible would agree with him. The two thrusts of his comments—light skin is better than dark skin, and most people in the U.S. don’t like people who speak Black English—are important insights with research to support their viability. For example, the work on implicit associations has produced convincing evidence that in the U.S., we have more positive associations with light-skinned people than with dark-skinned people (the same research also demonstrates more positive associations with whites people than with black people). We don’t know for certain if skin color affects voting behavior, but it seems to me it’s worth talking about.

And as for speech, we know that people often alter speech patterns and dialects to appeal to their audiences because the audience relates better to someone with that dialect; the audience trusts the speaker and sees that person as more credible. Indeed, there is a whole industry of “accent reduction” resources to help people shed speech patterns that would be stigmatized in the environments in which they work and live. And we also know that African American Vernacular English (Senator Reid’s “Negro” English, I’m guessing) has carried the stigma of being associated low levels of education. I don’t know for sure the use of African American Vernacular English by a candidate would affect voting behavior, but it seems to me it’s worth talking about.

In the midst of serious and sensitive conversations about race, people are going to make mistakes. Harry Reid sure did. But the problem with zero tolerance approaches is that they deprive us all—both the outrageous and the outraged—of the opportunity to learn. Hateful and maliciously ignorant speech is profoundly painful and I’m all for figuring out how to curtail it. Let’s do so with more open dialogue and less stifling punishment. Because when it comes to race and racial differences, we all still have a lot to learn.

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