It all started when missionaries called Africans “savages,” which consequently created a hierarchical demarcation between “inferior” and “superior” races.
Obviously, it started before that, but let’s start it here. Because we must start somewhere.
In the 1900s, a missionary to South Africa is quoted as saying, “The African man is a heathen. He does not wear anything but a blanket until he is taught and Christianized” (Allan Anderson). This white missionary equated the lack of clothing on a black African with heathenism. While clothes play important roles in all cultures, it is subjective perspectives like this throughout history that have created various complexes and perpetuated misunderstandings among human beings. Europeans (really humans as a whole) have often equated anything “other”—in language or appearance—as “bad,” “inferior,” “lesser,” “demonic,” or “savage.” Black men and women were no exception to that farce, and those demeaning uses of divisive language continue to be passed down from generation to generation.
I am reminded in Scripture when God confounded the languages at Babel. Albeit, He did not necessarily confound the races; mankind did more of that. Or perhaps we confounded race because of the language barrier. In Born a Crime, television host Trevor Noah references Nelson Mandela who said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” Noah, who speaks seven different languages, continues in his book about his experiences traversing the barriers of humanity by speaking the language of the people: “When you make the effort to speak someone else’s language, even if it’s just basic phrases here and there, you are saying to them, ‘I understand that you have a culture and identity that exists beyond me. I see you as a human.’” Cultural sensitivity combined with emotional intelligence allows us to speak the language—whether the language is linguistic, racial, economical, or political.
However, most of us allow language to create obstacles that keep us divided, which factors into race and politics. It’s a different kind of language to navigate, and it takes serious work, effort, and patience to create healthy relationships among humans, but we often judge others before the environment for understanding is created. This whole concept is as old as Pocahontas. That Disney movie taught me a lot as a child. The Native Americans were automatically labeled as “savages,” similar to the European missionary calling Africans “heathen.” But who is “savage?” It’s all about perspective. Then again, why does either party have to be “savage” at all? Why not “human?” Why not “brother?” Why not “friend?” Why not “someone made in God’s image?” Why not humanizing terms of love instead of beastly language that carries a negative connation of subjugation? The person who calls another a “savage” automatically positions himself to a place of elevation. Or in Baldwinian fashion, a “savage” had to be created so that a “civilized” human could appear. In other words, when we encounter things that do not fit our space or frame of understanding, we automatically assign it to terminology that polarizes and demeans someone else to “other.”
I believe mankind feigns ignorance or simply disregards linguistic and humanistic responsibility when he constantly employs divisive words. Advertising is a billion-dollar industry that hinges most of its success on appealing words and catchy jingles. Journalists (good and TERRIBLE ones) spend years in academic institutions learning way to leverage words, sway the public, and tell a compelling or deceptive story. Or a compellingly deceptive one. The point is, at this junction in time, most people should understand the poignant power of language. Many continue to use it for selfish agendas or to solicit pity. Rhetorical strategies permeate media stories, and the public continues to digest much unworthy content just because it is present on a mainstream platform.
Just like iterations of oppression, iterations of savage language keep popping up in issues, which prevents healthy conversations from taking place. On the flip side, we spend so much time analyzing one or two words that someone in a position of influence may speak that we spend very little time trying to see the light. I think the public wants to crucify people. The people want to destroy character. This sinister evil plagues all of the air waves, and it testifies to the spirit at the heart of mankind: manipulation of power—whether for good or bad.
Power was manipulated at the first use of “savage” to define “otherness.” Today we define it by words like “black,” “white,” “idiot,” “conservative,” and even “Republican” or “Democrat.” Degrees of power are attached to those terms and interpreted subjectively, depending on which side of the fence a person falls. But here’s the thing: God never called mankind to have dominion over one another in the beginning. He created mankind and gave us dominion over the earth and animals. I suppose the wicked twisting of sin also caused mankind to keep twisting the original design God had for us all. We are so far from His original purpose. That’s why we need His spirit to help us understand how He wants us to relate to one another.
As of now, I hope we start with language and weigh the names we call others. Are we doing it to create lines between “us” and “them?” Do we think of ourselves as better than others? Do we see how we so easily and casually demean others with our words? The words “Democrat” or “Republican” are being hurled as curse words nowadays, especially as we approach the eve of another election. We keep hailing the race of one or the other as better or worse; the irony is that we think it will lead to peace when it innately leads to division.
I hope we all take time to start considering the language more deeply and ask God for ways to make it work for the cause of Christ.
“Let your speech be always with grace, seasoned with salt, that ye may know how ye ought to answer every man.” – Colossians 4:6
“Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength, and my redeemer.” – Psalm 19:14
I will return to this topic in a few weeks, especially regarding Biblical language and race relations. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments and share this post on social media.
Upcoming Blog for July 13: “Two Daughters.”