language not only expresses ideas and concepts, but also shapes thought
September 3, 2020 12:57 PM   Subscribe

"Since language is a primary transmitter of culture, if one were to change one word in each of those headlines, a different interpretation of the disastrous week on Wall Street would be presented to the community."

Black Sunday (dust storm) could be Dust Sunday and we could focus on this Black Sunday.
Black Monday (Wall Street) could be Harmful Monday and we could focus on this Black Monday.
Black Tuesday (also Wall Street) could be Panic Tuesday and we could focus on this Black Tuesday.
Black Wednesday (UK crisis) could be ERM Wednesday and we could focus on this Black Wednesday.
Black Thursday (Molly Macguire executions) could be added to the list of Bloody Thursdays and we could focus on this Black Thursday.
Black Friday (Binge Shopping) could be Buy Nothing Day and we could focus on Dashiki Friday.

Need help working on your language? Conscious Style Guide can help you out.
posted by jessamyn (22 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
 
Steve Barnes (sf writer and human potential coach) sometimes uses "pale" to mean bad.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 2:14 PM on September 3, 2020 [2 favorites]


Black Wednesday (UK crisis) could be ERM Wednesday

Better, call it EDM Wednesday because of the British Pound's drop.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 2:59 PM on September 3, 2020 [18 favorites]


The article is kind of scant on historical detail aside from Shakespeare and the Bible, so a serious question for the etymologically minded here - at what historical point did 'black' first become a descriptor of ethnicity (and not just in a census category fashion)? We have historic and mythological associations with 'black' vs 'white' as parallels of 'evil' vs 'good' going back quite some time in European contexts.. do those predate the description of population groups as black or white? Are those same color associations seen in African mythology, or Mid-Eastern, or Asian, in the same time frames?

Basically - was 'black' framed as a negative descriptive term due to existing xenophobia, or did the xenophobic co-opt 'black' as an ethnic descriptor because of its negative cultural connotations?
posted by FatherDagon at 2:59 PM on September 3, 2020 [3 favorites]


A Native American colleague of mine half-jokingly pushed against similar language with a racist tone: he called bureaucratic delays and procedures "white tape" instead of "red tape," pointing out that it's a bunch of white folks who slow down projects.
posted by filthy light thief at 3:06 PM on September 3, 2020 [14 favorites]


There’s clearly a good point here. In a lot of ways, I think it is just as important to untie white from positive stuff. In some ways that may be easier, things like purity are already creepy to me. I think it might be harder to come up with better reworkings for black and dark. A stock market crash can be Fucked Monday, but what is the evil side of the force? Also, people are afraid of the dark. As much as there is a problematic overlap between race and other use of color and darkness, they aren’t really the same. And the words themselves are very strong, evocative and direct. Not that this is an insurmountable obstacle to changing how we use them.
posted by snofoam at 3:06 PM on September 3, 2020 [3 favorites]


[Please note this is a post made as part of MeFi's Fundraising Month. Read more about this project here.]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 3:08 PM on September 3, 2020 [2 favorites]


was 'black' framed as a negative descriptive term due to existing xenophobia, or did the xenophobic co-opt 'black' as an ethnic descriptor because of its negative cultural connotations?

This was really my curiosity and what I was hoping to find more contemplative discussion about when I poked into these topics. I'm sure there is a rich history there that I would also like to know more about.
posted by jessamyn at 3:09 PM on September 3, 2020


"language not only expresses ideas and concepts, but also shapes thought"
Of course it does.
For an enjoyable, easy take on this, read The Languages of Pao by Jack Vance.
Much better than slogging through academic literature on the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis.
posted by davebarnes at 3:26 PM on September 3, 2020 [3 favorites]


Slightly off topic and maybe should be an ask me but if anyone has a good replacement for Black Box and White Box testing (in the security testing sense) I’d love to know. Haven’t been able to quite replace them with something that captures the same concept and isn’t awkward.
posted by inflatablekiwi at 4:30 PM on September 3, 2020 [1 favorite]


Of interest maybe: Deconstructing Cartesian Dualisms of Western Racialized Systems: A Study in the Colors Black and White (article on JSTOR from the Journal of Black Studies, available with free registration)
posted by RGD at 5:01 PM on September 3, 2020 [3 favorites]


Slightly off topic and maybe should be an ask me but if anyone has a good replacement for Black Box and White Box testing (in the security testing sense) I’d love to know. Haven’t been able to quite replace them with something that captures the same concept and isn’t awkward.

A black box is black because it is impermeable to light, and thus sight, no? So the opposite should probably be a “clear box” and you could think about other variations on the idea of opaqueness or closedness, but I dunno, I think there have got to be some places where the metaphor is physical enough that you’re not really doing anybody any favors worrying too much about it.
posted by atoxyl at 5:39 PM on September 3, 2020 [4 favorites]


No Black Saturday? :)
posted by Melismata at 6:25 PM on September 3, 2020


It's Shabbat!
posted by jessamyn at 6:56 PM on September 3, 2020 [1 favorite]


Can we get to fixing bias against left-handed people someday? It's nowhere near as bad as the discrimination that black people experience, and I don't want to compare it, but... if you are going to fix language for some discrimination, there is a strong case for the enormous linguistic and social bias against left handed people.

The word sinister comes from the latin word for left, for example. Right literally means "correct", right-hand-man is a trusted person. But something out of left field is unexpected, gauche, the French word for left means awkward. There are lots of other examples of this.
posted by coberh at 9:13 PM on September 3, 2020 [3 favorites]


Black Saturday
posted by tavella at 9:59 PM on September 3, 2020 [1 favorite]


I’m the one who donated for this post. <3 When I started to research all the “black” days of the week, quite a few of them were Australian fires!
posted by Melismata at 3:20 AM on September 4, 2020


There is nothing obvious about Black as a color associated with evil or misfortune. In fact as you walk among the Dutch portrait paintings of the Golden age here in the Rijksmuseum, what do you see? Endless portraits of ladies and gentlemen dressed in black, the color of humility, modesty but also the fashionable color - the color of goodness. Bright color was suspect, according to Herman Pleij, and perhaps the work of the devil to blind us. Black, somber, simple black, is also the color of the majestic night sky.

If any color is terrifying, the obvious candidate is Red, the color of blood and fire.
posted by vacapinta at 4:17 AM on September 4, 2020 [2 favorites]


ladies and gentlemen dressed in black, the color of humility, modesty but also the fashionable color - the color of goodness.

True, if perhaps a tad faux, or self regarding. It was also color of power, if this woman is right. Also wealth. There was the question of cost (some say high) and how quickly the dye might fade (which would never do). American Puritans, contrary to imagination, did not customarily wear black, the exceptions being the high rent crew, the John Winthrops of this world, who were the only one's likely to get portraits painted in the first place. (Interesting read here on black in fashion over the ages.)

Are those same color associations seen in African mythology, or Mid-Eastern, or Asian, in the same time frames?

Plenty of claims out there, some may even be true. Seems a mixed bag if we're obsessing about black and white.
posted by BWA at 7:00 AM on September 4, 2020 [1 favorite]


Consider "film noir" — so named because (a) the original films noir were black-and-white, and (b) because the plots and themes generally revolve around lurid crime, detectives and sex, as derived from pulp fiction. There's really no racial connotation to the "noir" in that term, but there's certainly a negative connotation to the themes — they're not about love, freedom and happiness. My assumption is that film noir will remain film noir, because its darkness is associated with dark shadows and the dark underworld of crime.

What I'm trying to illustrate there, and vacapinta gives another example above, is that "black" in and of itself is not a negative. Operating in the black, for a business, is a good thing — it's an accounting term which means you're not losing money. The post mentions Black Friday — that term derives from that same accounting term, and not from "binge shopping" as framed.

I expect that some similes that use "black", "noir", "dark" etc. will fade away because they have clearly race-related roots. "Darkest Africa" went that way long ago. Similarly, master-slave tech terminology ought to go. "Master bedroom" is being targeted as well, but for the wrong reasons: it's got nothing to do with race, but clearly with gender, and needs a gender-neutral substitute. But at the end of the day, every color, including black, will retain useful status in similes that don't derive from negative stereotypes.
posted by beagle at 7:02 AM on September 4, 2020 [1 favorite]


This is fascinating. I think the two meanings are inextricably linked at this point. The only counterpoint to black=bad that I can think of comes from anarchists, i.e. Black Flag, Black Bloc, etc. Which seems fully intentional.

That or heavy metal/goth culture, where black=cool.
posted by Acey at 7:23 AM on September 4, 2020 [2 favorites]


Darkest Africa

Is a rather nasty double-entendre, isn’t it?

Per above discussion I always kind of assumed that negative associations of “black” predated its application to dark brown human beings, and I’d still be pretty surprised if they didn’t (c.f. the argument about Christian imagery, and what the Christians were nominally going to do for those poor unsaved African people) but I wouldn’t be surprised to hear there was some coevolution in that colonial era.

While “Black” is now the main survivor of the terms used in English for African diaspora people, with many of the others considered permanently outdated and offensive, from what I know of the history that was itself a long cultural conversation and (a guided) linguistic evolution towards a neutral/positive identifier.
posted by atoxyl at 9:17 AM on September 4, 2020


Great post - bringing to mind that biting and maliciously powerful line from Shakespeare:

"An old black ram is tupping your white ewe"


("Iago’s warning to Brabantio [Desdemona's dad][ that “an old black ram/ is tupping your white ewe” is found in Act I, Scene 1, lines 87-8 of Othello."
posted by Jody Tresidder at 3:17 PM on September 4, 2020


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