Through the Time Machine: A Commentary on Language, History and Racism

As humans, the need to express one’s desires and feelings is inborn, while the skill of communication through language is acquired. The first thing that is expected of an infant is to utter a few syllables—this shows the significance of language in our lives. Even when mankind had not yet developed the intellect to form words, pictorial scripts such as the hieroglyphics in Ancient Egypt were used to convey messages. Language plays an integral part in every culture and can be seen as the identity of a civilization; not only does it evolve in sync with a society’s cultural, economic, and social development, but it also represents the culture’s views and perceptions.

However, it can be seen that racism has been interlaced with, and has its roots deep in the foundation of language itself. Throughout history, language has played an impactful role in cultural and racial injustice, and it continues to do so. Firstly, we are all familiar with how color symbolism has a strong hold over each form of language; white symbolizes positivity, pureness and innocence whereas black symbolizes negativity, evilness and corruption. Angels are portrayed to be white and devils, black. It is believed  that a black cat means bad luck whereas a white rabbit is a good omen. Even in shows made for children, heroes wear white while villains wear black. A very good example of this is Tarzan; which shows a white man ruling over and protecting Africa. This cultivates itself in the minds of individuals, especially the youth, and leads to beliefs that, directly or indirectly, support racial injustice. Young minds have been corrupted with the idea of white having supremacy over black; consequently, people of color constantly doubt themselves, their identities and their heritages.

English is the most widely spoken language, with approximately 1.13 million speakers worldwide; however, many words in the English language are considered to be degrading and insulting towards people of color. For example, the master’s ownership of the slave is implicit in the English usage of the master/slave concept; the captives (slaves) were African individuals with worth, dignity and rights, however the (now commonly used) term of “slaves” condemns all these qualities. This allowed their white captors to view the rape of African women as an acceptable act, along with normalizing other atrocities carried out against them. For instance, some excerpts in history books state how European immigrants came to the United States to expand their opportunities and to avail a better lifestyle, however they note “the slaves were brought to America”. The use of such terminology for African individuals not only ignores the destruction of African civilizations and families, but also the role of slaveholders in the lucrative human trade. Even in the subcontinent, language was used as a tool to manipulate history. What the locals called “War of Independence of 1857”, was termed as “Indian Mutiny” by white historians to portray how the Indians were at fault. More examples of how the misuse of language has polluted history to portray white captors and oppressors as heroes include the term “discovery” (used in the Euro-American context) that indicates the right to take what has been found, which completely disregards the existence of those who already inhabit the “discovered” areas. The stolen land belonged to the Natives, however when the term “discovery” is associated with it, it disregards the existence of the natives altogether and justifies the Euro-American conquests of Native land. In history texts, the invaders were not described to be stealing native land, rather they were described to be defending themselves from “Indian attacks”; thus, language once again put a veil over the persecutions of greedy land-grabbers.

Today, terms such as “culturally deprived”, “economically disadvantaged” and “underdeveloped” are used to mislead the awareness of reality.  Third World countries are seen as inferiors and are treated with disrespect. Even immigrants from Third World countries are looked down upon and are met with slurs which completely degrade their identity and dehumanize them. Immigrants who are unable to speak English in Euro-American areas are seen as second class citizens and most of them can only avail low paying jobs, which further adds to racial injustice and causes people of color to be ashamed of their mother-tongue. Signs of this discrimination can even be seen in Third World countries themselves, where English-speaking individuals consider themselves superior to those who speak native languages. Due to this, the worth of native languages in many countries, including Pakistan, has decreased over time.

It is evident how language has always been used as a tool to manipulate historical facts, however it is up to us to differentiate between what’s wrong and what’s right. To recognize and highlight racism and its forms associated with language is the first step. Although we can not change the language, we can correct our use of it, and eradicate the usage of degrading terminology. Together, we can make conscious efforts to

use language as a tool which brings forth the truth, rather than using it as a weapon that completely disregards and distorts history.

TLC Writer

Momina Tiwana

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