racism of older linguists

RonButters at AOL.COM RonButters at AOL.COM
Sat Mar 7 16:44:40 UTC 2009

Wilson's painful recollection is both touching and illustrative of just how
complicated race is in the American experience, especially in the pasts of
those of us who were born in the 1930s and 1940s, and it calls to mind a
mirror-image anecdote that was told me with much bitterness in the early 1970s about
the same famous white linguist.

My white friend (born about 1950) spoke with the famous white linguist at a
meeting of LSA concerning the friend's application for graduate school in the
program that the famous linguist headed. He was told, he reported, "I don't
think this is a good time for a white male to be going into sociolinguistics."
This struck him as terribly racist.

I suggested to him that the famous white linguist was merely being realistic:
academia had a lot of catching up to do, and he was warning the prospective
student that his chances were not good. I would agree the f.w.l. was not very
diplomatic, and certainly he was describing an example of what is
controversially dubbed "reverse racism," but he was not, I think, merely a mindless
parroting of popular liberal ideas of the time.

I suggest also that, when the famous white linguist expressed surprise at
seeing a black student in attendance at a gathering of sociolinguists in 1973,
the f.w.l. was being similarly realistic (if, again, undiplomatic). The fact is
that a black student in sociolinguistics at that time was something of a great
novelty, and commenting on the race of the student could well have been an
awkward and unthinking expression of excited welcome: "What are you doing here?"
=?  "What is your role here?" not "Who let the likes of you in?". The entire
career of the f.w.l. (if he is who I think he is) is a demonstration of just
how much he tried to promote real opportunities for black students.

In the same era, many of us who were just coming out as gay experienced
similar kinds of overly effusive welcome, to the point sometimes of being annoying.
Nobody today would say things like, "How great that the profession is
beginning to attract so many outwardly gay people." But people said things like that
to me in 1973.

My experience is that linguistics is one of the least racist, least
homophobic, academic disciplines I know. I guess the best that can be said about our
painful experiences from those earlier days is that young people today don't
face those kinds of problems. This is not to say that racism and sexism and
homophobia is dead, but the playing field is a lot more even today, and I certainly
hope that younger linguists do not find the need to be constantly looking
over their shoulders to see who is going to stab them for being black, or queer,
or female, or, for that matter, white heterosexual male Red Sox fans.

In a message dated 3/6/09 3:09:43 PM, thnidu at GMAIL.COM writes:

> On Fri, Mar 6, 2009 at 2:58 PM, Wilson Gray <hwgray at gmail.com> wrote:
> >
> > I had occasion to chat with said professor at the '73 Michigan Summer
> > LSA. He mentioned that he had seen me at various other linguistic
> > happenings "and I've been wondering what you're doing here."
> >
> > This question struck me as astoundingly, unbelievably, incredibly,
> > stunningly, astonishingly, I-can't-believe-what-I'm-hearing, amazingly
> > racist. But later, when I tried to whine about this to friends, I
> > found that no one else found this question to be at all out of place
> > or uncalled-for. Apparently, everyone else was in agreement with the
> > implication that the presence of a black person at a linguistic
> > conference was something so out of the ordinary that it should be
> > expected that his presence there could be questioned or even be
> > challenged.
> >
> > Is the LSA, therefore, a racist organization made up of racists?
> >
> > Of course not! But the experience of the United States by a black
> > person is simply different from the experience of the United States by
> > a white person: different expectations, different reactions.
> >
> > What can you do?
> >
> > -Wilson
> >
> We can all try to understand each other and the positions we and others find
> ourselves in. We can keep our lines of communication open, and default to
> not assuming hostility, racism, etc. ... All of which you are doing and
> promoting with the above and many of your other posts. Thanks.
> m a m
> ------------------------------------------------------------
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