Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Oppression of Language

This is a theme I frequently find reading into history, race or language. The way that language is structured can sometimes be used as a tool of oppression against others.

The first time I was aware of this was in the Malcolm X film when he spoke specifically about this, that certain terms like “blackmail” for example were used in very negative connotations, which in the context of a wider system of racism and oppression can be quite devastating.

Other terms I came to know had racist connotations is the term “mufti-day” where –in New Zealand at least- we didn't have to wear uniforms. Well it seems the first time it was used was by British soldiers in the Middle East as a way of denigrating the highest Muslim authority in the land, the Mufti.
Or something as otherwise inconsequential as a color “nigger brown” that was used to describe the socks worn by nurses in Sydney in the 1970's. The school of Nursing at the time proscribed these color socks to all nurses.

Another powerful reminder of the oppressive use of language was made clear to me when I attended a workshop on Aboriginal Health, where a man “Graham” gave a 2 hour presentation on Aboriginal beliefs and practices related to health. I was struck with the terms Graham used to describe concepts that were much more powerful, complex and important than the English terms he was using to describe them.
Terms like “medicine man” when referring to a spiritual and physical healer that’s part of his family and whose power of healing (or Baraka) was quite powerful, or “magic” which came to mean the intangible energy of life that runs through everything living and otherwise, which can be harnessed for the wellbeing of the community as well as a part of a natural ecosystem, and “Auntie” which came to mean an Elder, again an important person in the family/tribal structure who keeps the family bloodlines, cares for the family/tribe and gives council.
It seemed as if these terms in their original language had a multilayered depth to them, but this depth was completely disregarded when translated to English. The language had served to reduce the terms, and therefore their place and importance in Aboriginal society, and in doing so was another method of undermining Aboriginal culture and civilization.

Of course again this may not seem all that bad, if not coupled with the appreciation of the full effects of British colonization in Australia. Seeing an Aboriginal woman in front of me speak with such clear pain and anger of the brother she never knew, who was taken from her mother some 50 years ago. Of the way this pain traveled through her mother and her and her children, searching for justice or closure somewhere. Which of course they wouldn't get easily because they’re not white.

More relevant today is of course the closure of Aboriginal communities in Western Australia, because of Tony Abbot’s language, reducing the communities to be a “lifestyle choice”.

The language of oppression is all around us. It’s up to us to be aware of it and to fight it. 

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