Whether in print, on television or on social media, people are increasingly using code words or phrases to describe African Americans.
“Urban” is now the politically-correct term for black people, neighborhoods or style of dress; “thug” is sometimes code for the n-word; and the term “ethnic” may be used in fear of referring to someone as black.
There are also phrases such as “that’s ghetto,” something negative associated with blackness; “you are so articulate,” confident and clear speech the listener doesn’t expect from an African American; or “My hair is nappy,” a reference negatively associated with blacks’ oftentimes thick, coarse tresses.
Dr. Leslie Ashburn-Nardo, associate professor of psychology at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis believes coded language is due to non-blacks going out of their way to be “colorblind” and avoid mentioning race in situations where it is truly the only meaningful descriptor.
“In my view, saying it’s ‘an urban school’ rather than a ‘predominantly-black school’ is the same thing. It’s based on concern about appearing racist to others. The irony is whites who use this strategy actually are seen as more racist by African Americans under circumstances in which race is clearly relevant,” said Ashburn-Nardo.
“Color Blindness and Interracial Interaction” – a research report written by various academics from Harvard Business School, Tufts University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology – asserts that race can lead to a slippery slope. The report said there is nothing inherently racist about noticing race, but “indeed noticing race does lead to the activation of stereotypical associations, which can in turn lead to prejudicial behavior.”
Due to this, the report said people attempt to prevent associations that result in prejudicial behavior. But, in most cases, people know exactly whom the coded language is referring to. This practice creates unnecessary tension.
In their tests, researchers found white research participants were more likely to be direct when discussing race with other whites than when they talked with an African American. Even when using “acceptable” words such as “black” or “African American” white research participants still opted for other language when talking to a black person and performed tasks less efficiently when working alongside a black person.
“The more reluctant whites were to use race in the presence of blacks, the more unfriendly they appeared,” researchers said.
Although the study focused on the negative impact for whites, the costs may extend to both whites and blacks in the form of strained interracial interactions.
Though using coded language is potentially harmful, Ashburn-Nardo said she is hesitant to encourage African Americans to confront the issue. Research shows even when discrimination is clear, there can be social backlash for African Americans who confront racism.
African Americans should be aware they likely will be disliked for confronting but they will have made a difference and helped educate someone about why the word is hurtful.
“African-Americans have to evaluate whether it’s worth it to confront. We encourage people to confront in less threatening ways in order to minimize backlash,” said Ashburn-Nardo.
For example, blacks can say, “I’m sure you’re trying to do the right thing, but ‘ghetto’ is a hurtful word to me and to a lot of other African Americans” rather than flat out calling the other a racist.
She also said white allies who confront anti-black prejudice are perceived as more persuasive because they don’t appear to have a vested interest in the situation. There is less potential backlash for them.