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Language, racism and colonialism
I started writing this as a response in the discussion entitled "Is the Discovery Channel racist?", but then I decided to open a new topic on the general question of language, racism and colonialism.  Though I'm beginning the discussion with an example and my analysis of one perhaps rather subtle relation between language and racist/colonialist attitudes, I would welcome more general discussion.

I was at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. a few days ago, and I noticed that all six gorillas have African names: Haloko, Mandara, Kigali, Baraka, Kwame and Kojo.  Apparently this naming is very common and includes captured gorillas and those born in zoos.  Rwanda also now has an annual gorilla-naming ceremony for animals born in national parks.  In American zoos, African names make a certain sense as a way of acknowledging the animals' origin.  Along with giving visitors a concrete picture of bio-diversity, it seems to me that zoos can try to heighten visitors' geographic awareness.  (I guess this doesn't always work: in the small mammal house I overheard one man saying, "It's a rat.  It's another rat."  His southern accent lent this an unfortunate comic effect, of which he seemed pretty aware.)

In spite of the obvious reasons for giving African names to the gorillas, I think this naming is also related to the kind of racist representations shown in the Discovery Channel discussion.  In particular, there seem to be two things at work:

First, there is the equation African=ape, which has historically focused on supposed physiognomic resemblances and has always associated Africans with animals and primitiveness.

Second, there is a more subtle but perhaps more damning appeal that we can locate by thinking about the interest in the meaning of names, which I find frequently accompanies western uses of languages like Swahili.  For instance, the National Zoo's baby gorilla, Kibibi, was named by public vote among three Swahili names.  On the zoo's website, we read, "The name, pronounced kee-BEE-bee, means 'little lady.' Kipenzi (meaning 'loved one') was a close second, and Keyah ('good health') was a distant third."  I want to suggest that this interest in name-meanings has a rather specific appeal, which may be part of the reason that modern missionary groups sometimes adopt names like Rafiki Foundation -- though in that case it would be worth at least noting that the foundation predates Disney's movie The Lion King, which I think uses names like Rafiki to much the same effect.  I think also of the Baraka School, which offers African-American children from poor neighborhoods of Baltimore a chance to attend school in Kenya.

The appeal of these names, I suggest, is in the way this linguistic interest produces and conceals an asymmetric symbolic relation to the African racial/cultural other.  First of all, using African names lets you acknowledge the otherness of Africa while elevating yourself above it: I am a sophisticated, sensitive westerner who knows this African word.  But there is usually no question of learning an African language; the words is a curio.  One thereby claims an African language as something one can talk about: 'Rafiki' means "friend," 'Baraka' means "blessing," etc.  This relation between languages is not imagined as symmetric.  The particular words chosen ('Baraka' is very popular) also strike me as involving a kind of continued linguistic colonization that tries to find Christian ideas in African languages.  In these cases it is not so much a way of establishing the possibility of communication by finding similar concepts, but rather a way of picking and choosing a new African-Christian vocabulary, as though these languages were there all along, just waiting to be redeemed by contact with the west.  Finally, there is often a kind of paternalism in this use of African names, which imagines Africans not as animals but as children.

Recognizing these two tendencies obviously doesn't mean blaming every use of Swahili (or, if you can imagine it, some other African language) in America or Europe.  As I've said, there are also good reasons why you might want to use African names for gorillas.  But in the zoo I couldn't help feeling that the problematic relation to African languages needed some kind of acknowledgment.

I also noticed that only one of the six orangutans had an Indonesian/Malay name (Batang); the others have names like Bonnie, Iris, Kiko, Kyle and Lucy.  These are also pretty funny in a certain way; maybe naming zoo animals involves you in a double bind.  (I should add that apparently there was once a gorilla named Gus; Kigali is his daughter with Mandara.)
There is a chapter in the book Freakonomics about the socio-economic impacts of distinctively black names. I couldn't find a version of the chapter online but there is a similar paper here :

http://74.125.47.132/search?q=cache:oiGeMigGnw8J:www.cramton.umd.edu/workshop/papers/fryer-levitt-distinctively-black-names.pdf+The+Causes+and+Consequences+of+Distinctively+Black+Names&cd=1&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=us&client=firefox-a

The paper looks at data from the last 40 years. It found that a baby girl born in 1970 in a black neighborhood was given a name roughly two times more common among blacks than whites. In 1980 the names was now 20 times more common among blacks than whites.

Today, more than 40 percent of the black girls born in California in a given year receive a name that not one of the roughly 100,000 baby white girls received that year. Even more remarkably, nearly 30 percent of the black girls are given a name that is unique among every baby, white and black, born that year in California. (There were also 228 babies named Unique during the 1990s alone, and one each of Uneek, Uneque, and Uneqqee; virtually all of them were black.

The article investigates whether people with distinctively black names have a worse life experience. The study found that they did and were more likely to exist in a lower socio-economic class. However, the study did not blame the names necessarily but the circumstances of birth. Two black children who were born in the same neighborhood, one with a distinctively black name and one with out, were just as likely to live similarly. However, having a distinctively black name meant he was more likely to have been born in the poor neighborhoods.

I found the most astonishing part of all this the speed at which it's developed. the 40 fold difference from 1970 to now strikes me as very fast. What does this mean for race relations? I think if anything it is indication of a growing chasm. Or perhaps it is indication of a changing culture in poorer black neighborhoods and a growing pride to that culture. Should we worry about a growing racial divide or instead just focus on fixing up poor inner city neighborhoods?
Interesting theory.  You ignore the fact that our culture treats pretty much all 'other' language the same way, of course.  That is, we like to know the meaning of specific words, but rarely have the impetus or intention of learning the language - be it Swahili, French or Latin.  For example, my name means 'beloved' in Hebrew; I am pleased to know that, and the meanings of any number of words in other languages, and words in our language which have migrated from other languages.  I am unusually familiar with epistemological roots and meanings, but I am not willing to take the time to actually learn other languages.  (If I did, it would be the aforementioned - and dead - Latin, by the way).

I suggest that  there are enough overt and subtle examples of inappropriate prejudice in our society that it's not really productive (or even marginally useful) to enumerate imagined slights.  Racism requires intent; without it, you simply have ordinary ignorance, or at worst, stupidity.  One cannot be inadvertently racist.
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Latest Post: March 12, 2010 at 5:39 PM
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