Time to stop using words that equate “black” or “dark” with bad

This column was originally published in a variety of ECM-Sun Current newspapers in November, 2017.


Time to stop equating “black” with “bad”

Ever been “black-balled”? Not a good thing, right? Or, have you read or heard recently about too much “dark money” in politics? Or have you seen a western movie with guys in black hats? They’re almost always are “the bad guys.”

Here’s are two modest proposals that come from a life-time of reading and seeing words and symbols that equate black and dark with evil and bad.

First: Please consider reading or listening with your kids, grandkids or students to the brief, gentle “Dream Variation” poem by award-winning writer Langston Hughes. It’s one of the all too rare depictions of black as pleasant and positive. It’s not “anti-white.” It simply presents black as something positive. The poem ends, “Night coming tenderly, Black like me.” https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/dream-variations/

Second: Let’s consciously find other words and terms to describe things we don’t like. “Hidden” money could easily replace “dark money.” “Reject, refuse or even discriminate” is just as clear as “black ball.”

“Why bother?” some readers are thinking. Others are thinking, “There goes Joe, being ‘politically correct’.”

To such people – especially if they are white like me, I’d ask, how would you feel if people constantly equated white with wrong or evil? What if “white-balled” was something that you did not want to happen to you? What if you were pretty certain that people depicted in white clothing were criminals, losers or evil?

These things matter. Some readers may remember the “doll test” used in the historic U.S. Supreme Court case “Brown versus Board of Education.” In the 1940s, psychologists Mamie and Kenneth Clark showed dolls that were identical in all but one way to children. The only difference was that some dolls were black and others were white. Most children, black or white, identified the white dolls as more attractive. (Information here: http://www.naacpldf.org/brown-at-60-the-doll-test)

But sadly, a 2010 replication of that doll study found similar results. A CNN report quotes Margaret Beale Spencer, a University of Chicago researcher who supervised the study. She believes that this research shows that “we are still living in a society where dark things are devalued and white things are valued.”  http://www.cnn.com/2010/US/05/13/doll.study/index.html

Last month, the Annie Casey Foundation released a report comparing the status of American children and young people of various groups. The foundation used measures like percentage of high school graduation rates, percentage of young children enrolled in a “formal learning environment,” young adults ages 19-26 who are in school or working, young adults ages 25-29 who have a two-year college degree or higher, percentage of children living at least 200 percent above poverty.

As in many studies, there were significant gaps. Compared to young people in other states, Minnesota white youngsters ranked 5th, Latinos ranked 17th, American Indian children ranked 20th, African American youngsters ranked 25th, and Asian Pacific children ranked 41st. (Recently Minnesota legislators have agreed it’s important to be more specific about the range of young people within, for example, Asian-Pacific and African American.) The report is available here: http://www.aecf.org/resources/race-for-results/

Changing our language is only one step toward a better world. But it doesn’t require government action. It doesn’t require spending any money. It isn’t hard. But it can help.

Youngsters pay attention to what we do.  It’s time for us to stop equating “dark” and “black” with “undesirable” and “bad.”

Joe Nathan directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome, joe@centerforschoolchange.org or @JoeNathan9249