What do we talk about when we talk about racism?

Opinion: Columns

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By John Hubbuch

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote that what can be said at all can be said clearly, and what we cannot talk about we pass over in silence. I think there is the suggestion that we humans may well be prisoners of our language. Language may limit comprehensibility and intelligibility.

He might be right. A lot of both public and private discussion results in anger, frustration and incoherence because the participants have different conceptions of the common words they are using. God, patriotism, abortion, history and ethical behavior are just a few of the words that can have very different meanings. We really need to ask: "Just what are you talking about?"

For example, what does it mean to say that an individual is a "racist"? Is that determination subjective or objective? If I firmly believe I am not a racist, is that a consideration in considering whether I am racist? If the standard is an objective one, then are white people disqualified from judging, but could an African American be biased? Is there standardized testing or a psychological diagnosis to identify a racist?

Of course some language and behavior is clearly that of a racist, but the overt racism of the not-so-distant past has been replaced by a softer, coded racist vocabulary. That said, can a white person dislike the NBA because "they don't play defense" or "make free throws" and not be racist? Can you be a racist in your 20s, but not in your 50s? If you use a racist epithet only once but say you are sorry, are you a racist for life? Is there a statute of limitations?

Another example: What does it mean to say that Oak Park is guilty of racism? Public discussion over the performance gap at the high school, refusal to play hip-hop music at a Forest Park bar, and a white student's regretted Facebook post of a photo in black face are followed by accusations of institutional racism. The debate is emotional and genuine, but predictable, uninformative and utterly redundant. The discussion begets the thought that if Oak Park is a racist community, then name one that isn't. And if all communities are racist, then what are we really talking about?

Shouldn't the discussion include the sense that Oak Park is less racist than most communities? I hope so because that is one of the reasons most of us live here. Or is the scale binary? Either your community is or isn't racist. If not binary, then is the racism determined by the percentage of racists living in each community? But then you are back to the prior discussion of individual racists.

It looks like Wittgenstein may have been on to something. A less philosophic approach comes from The Talking Heads in "Psycho Killer":

You start a conversation, you can't even finish

You're talking a lot, but you're not saying anything

When I have nothing to say, my lips are sealed

Say something once, why say it again?

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