“But why would they do that to their OWN communities?”
I have heard this comment a lot lately, mostly from people whose job title (Commentator/Pundit/Expert) should imply they are prepared to think critically rather than churn out filler lines.
You may suspect I have a problem with linguistic tropes. You would be correct. I love language. It exists as one option in the human portfolio of communication. Because of how widely it is used – people may say “I can’t draw” but they don’t usually say “I can’t talk!” (Haha. Um, nevermind.) – as I was saying, I have deep respect for language and the ideas for which it acts as vehicle. Language, in its best form, is one of our species’ most powerful tools towards theory of mind.
Thus, I have a deep-seated skepticism of any word or group of words which is used reflexively1. The reason this skepticism exists is because these words – though apparently simple – almost always have deep meanings.
These hidden meanings often escape the people who parrot the words2. And the meanings may be innocuous. “Like”, for instance: although many would-be linguistic purists like to dislike it, I think the word’s most recent evolution has useful functions. More on that another day. For today, I have thoughts regarding the three little words that are used to convey stunned, I-thought-we-were-all-adults-here-but-I-guess-I-was-wrong disbelief at the riots and property destruction (not to be confused with peaceful protests, by the way) taking place in brand-name cities across the U.S. Let’s hear them again:
“Their. Own. Communities.”
Three problems there.
First off, “Their.” See, that’s distancing language.
There are problems facing fellow American citizens; the idea of “citizen” requires that problems facing one are problems facing all. And yet, that appears not to be the case. “Their” implicitly accepts that none of this has anything to do with the speaker, and that confirms that – practically speaking – segregation is still a reality.
Economically, spatially, and statistically, people who don’t check the box “white” are at risk for a whole bunch of things in this federal republic, including (on top of everything else) a bad ZIP code3. I know, it’s bizarre. Are you sure you want to go on the record acknowledging that? Because that’s going to be a great and truly transformative moment in American culture and I for one am ready to see it. But somehow I don’t think that’s what you meant. Get back to me when you figure it out.
Second: “Own.” Hmm. So, you think people should feel a sense of pride in a place that, historically speaking, was basically the unwanted leftovers? And they only retain, currently, because no one has a) declared imminent domain or b) decided to “improve” – “revitalize” – “gentrify” them right out of it?
It was never their own community, except as a space to which they were relegated. If someone put you in a cage you’d hate it too. You’d destroy it too. Look up “redlining” and the history of the Federal Housing Administration.
Finally – “Community.” You mean a wealth-desert filled with well-intentioned projects, dysfunctional schools, franchises, illegal microeconomies, and not much else? (Oh, and every four years a politician or two, because it might be a close vote.) Statistically and generally speaking – that is what the places inhabited by the “they” implied by “their” (see above) means.
Additionally – most of the people who use the above phrase aren’t talking about this mess because they’re actually surprised “they” are destroying “their” “own” “communities.” These pundits mean: “I am worried ‘you people’ will mess with MY community, MY safe space, MY stuff, MY wealth, and MY sense of comfort.” I hazard a more accurate translation is: “I want this to stop, because it’s bloody threatening.”
“They” could just say it.
Words, people. Think before you say them. For as we speak, so shall we think and act. If we actually want our society to emerge from all of this, we must start talking like it.
1 Lest you think me unfair, I try to apply this policy most rigorously to my own voice. If I find myself using a phrase a lot, it’s put into “quarantine” until I can piece it apart and figure out what I actually mean.
2 Actual parrots, by the way, are very intelligent.
3 Why? Because in a truly wretched example of institutionalized racism known as “redlining, “people of color” were herded into neighborhoods the Feds considered “low value,” and the neighborhoods were picked as “low value” based on items like: do they contain a single foreigner or “person of color”? Under this criteria, even economically thriving communities in places like Chicago were relegated to perpetual poverty. If you want more information, a great place to start is this book-length article by Ta-Nehisi Coates. It’s worth reading in installments.
“Statistically” – yea, I know. I used it a lot and didn’t include a single statistic. Here is my “Works Consulted” section. I apologize for the lack of quality citations. Please let me know if you have a specific question on any of the points.
2 thoughts on “Three Little Words”
You are a beautiful writer and a brilliant person. It’s intimidiating responding to such a smart piece so I will just say that I hung on every word and thank you.
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Thank you so much for your kind words, I’m glad the piece spoke to you.
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