When can a token not be a token?: Indirectly legitimizing status discrimination through language
March 12th, 2012
In his book “Discourse and Social Change” (1992) Norman Fairclough writes, “Discourse practices contribute to reproducing society as it is—explaining what is going on as well as transforming it.” He repeatedly emphasizes that as a foundational thought in sociolinguistics, language, is not just a tool we use to represent the world but it is fundamental in “constituting and constructing the world in meaning” (Fairclough, 1992).
How often have you heard of the term “minority” categorizing people around you, (perhaps even you yourself) in everyday discourse? Even official government websites have lists for “minority members of Congress”—such as African Americans, Asian Americans, and Hispanics. I am considered a minority myself given my ethnic immigrant background, however, sometimes others label me as one of “majority whites” in America because of how I look. I dislike both labels to describe me in the context of this society. (Yes, even if I am part of a majority).
Today, the discourse common in our American life associates majority with being advantaged and minority with being disadvantaged. Psychological studies contend that those who attain social success and are presumably a member of the disadvantaged minority are false indicators of the status of their fellow minority peers. Wright, Taylor and Moghaddam (1990, 1998), term this phenomena “Tokenism.” I question the value of labels as applied in our every day life: the constructions affected by using the group label “disadvantaged” or “advantaged”. (Ironically, the same psychologists mentioned above claim that the self-fulfilling prophecy labels impact their subjects as they both restrict and/or empower the subject of categorization.)
So, should one believe in the salience of tokens; that the president of the United States, being African-American, is not indicative of fair sociopolitical opportunities for all African-Americans? If this is true, then Justice Sotomayor is also a token anomaly for Latino social mobility in America. What about Farvardin, the Iranian-born “minority immigrant” provost of the University of Maryland? Sergey Brin, the Russian-born American founder of Google? Secretary Condelezza Rice, a member of the minority group “African American”? Doris Matsui, an “Asian-American minority” Congresswoman, “Hispanic minority” Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez or the “Arab-American minority” Lebanese Ralph Nader?
Can these examples of American success ever cease to be considered anomalies, tokens or essentially “flukes” of the socio-political structures we have in place? I believe that by declaring these examples as tokens, we are inadvertently “constituting and constructing” (Fairclough, 1992) a disadvantaged world for their peers — the so-called “minorities.” If I, say a Russian immigrant to the U.S., identify Sergey Brin (the Russian-American founder of Google), as a token example of opportunities for Russian immigrants in America, I am preemptively placing myself in a disadvantaged category. When I think of Brin as a token, then I am assuming that the same America available to him will not be available to me, so my psyche believes that I will remain a disadvantaged American forever. However, should I look at Brin, and identify him as an example of the potential I, too, have in America, then I am shedding the fetters of “minority” or “disadvantaged”; that enables me to begin “constituting and constructing” my success–and advantaged future.
I am not declaring America to be the flawless model for fair social mobility. I am, however, proposing a massive overhaul of the use of the terms “minority” or “minority status”. I believe that the perception of being in the minority, itself, is the greater cause for disadvantage in any sociopolitical system. In fact, the mere use of these terms in speeches, legislation, website language, etc. is enforcing the very walls such boundaries create.
I am not blind to socioeconomic realities in statistics of a population, nor am I submitting to the notion that “the system” is perfect as is — but I do take issue with the initial perception that there are minority and majority labels that often translate into disadvantaged and advantaged groups in society. The first step toward any action to improve our own social mobility or even the systems in place is to eliminate the fetters of our own perception and as such the perceived categories we are placed in by others. If we want to be seen as the “color of water” then we must be the first to see ourselves as such.
In The Conference of the Birds, an epic poem, Attar follows the conference of birds who are looking for their ideal king–named Simurgh. In their quest to reach Simurgh, the birds come to find that they themselves are the Simurgh. As though reflected in a mirror, the thirty (“si” in Persian) birds (“murgh” in Persian) are The Simurgh–ideal king.