Saturday, December 25, 2010

WikiLeaks and “White Privilege”

By Farooq A. Kperogi
Twitter: @farooqkperogi 

The muckraking, whistle-blowing, secret-spewing WiliLeaks that has unnerved Western governments in unheard-of ways has also dramatized the reality of what has been called “white privilege” in critical race theory.

In plain language, white privilege is racialized social privilege that normalizes and renders invisible the often unfair and unearned advantages that “white” people habitually enjoy because of the accident of their racial identity, which has enjoyed symbolic and cultural dominance over the last few centuries.

It is “white privilege,” for instance, that accounts for why Timothy McVeigh’s terrorism didn’t cause white American Catholics of Irish descent to be labeled terrorists—or cause people who shared his primordial identity to apologize for his crime. It also explains why the crime of a white anti-government Texas man who crashed his plane into a U.S. federal government building killing two workers and himself wasn’t called terrorism or “suicide bombing.”

Imagine for a second that Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, was a black man, a Muslim, an Arab—or anything but a white male Anglo-Saxon Protestant Australian. The conversation would certainly have been different from what it is now.

Even with all of the privileges that his incidental attributes have automatically conferred on him, prominent Western leaders have openly called for his extra-judicial murder. The United States government, which always prides itself on being the patron saint of “free speech,” is considering filing espionage charges against Assange, has blocked WikiLeaks site from being viewed in some government offices, and has instructed that university students seeking future employment with the American government should neither read nor share the damning revelations contained in the leaks.

Given the magnitude of discomfiture he has subjected the American government and other Western powers to, it’s certain that something really dramatic would happen to Assange soon. But the power of white privilege has ensured that no other white person—in fact, no Australian— has to vicariously suffer the consequences of Assange’s choices. If Assange were anything other than what he is, his compatriots would have been all worried. His native country, and all the countries he has visited, would have been on some watch list.

But the greater curiosity, for me, is the source of WikiLeaks’ leaks. Assange didn’t deploy any investigative reportorial skills to unearth the troves of embarrassing information he has been regaling us with; he exploits the anger or conscientious objections of people in sensitive places to get the leaks. According to many accounts, the “mole” in the U.S. Army who gave all that embarrassingly enervating information to WikiLeaks that is causing so much discomfort in government circles is a 23-year-old American soldier by the name of Bradley E. Manning.
Julian Assange and Bradley Manning
Manning, who has been arrested, put in solitary confinement since May 2010, and awaiting court-martial next year, has an interesting demographic profile. He is a blue-eyed, blond-haired white male homosexual whose mother hails from Wales in the United Kingdom. After his parents’ divorce, he followed his mother to Wales where he lived and went to school for some time before returning to the United States to enlist in the U.S. Army. It is said that he spilled several troves of sensitive information about American intelligence to WikiLeaks to protest the so-called “don't ask, don't tell” policy in the U.S. military that prohibited homosexuals from serving openly.

Interestingly, the U.S. media hasn’t been talking a lot about this high-school dropout who has betrayed his fatherland in ways that have no parallel in U.S. history. But, more significantly, whenever he is mentioned in the media at all, he is often talked of as one lone, disgruntled soldier who let down his country out of righteous angst and frustration or, as the New York Times sympathetically put it, out of “desperation for acceptance.”

Can you conceive of that kind of excuse being made for a non-white person in a similar situation? If Manning was black or Muslim or of non-European descent, his non-American maternal roots—and especially his sojourn in his mom’s country— would have been ruthlessly scrutinized. An Al-Qaida connection would have been established by now. Osama Ben Laden—or his countless “deputies”—would have released a video affirming that Manning was indeed an Al-Qaida mole in the U.S. military and that there are many more of his kind there.

And then there would have been a massive public outrage over the patriotism of blacks or Muslims. The case would be made that the loyalty of racial or religious minorities has always been suspect and that the government should henceforth be careful in recruiting minorities into the U.S. military.

Of course, all people who share any attributes with the “minority” offender would issue statements denouncing or dissociating themselves from him, but American conservatives would be inconsolable. They would be asking for blood through their Fox News channel. There would certainly be hate attacks against many innocent people. People who share any incidental primordial attributes with the “traitor” would be worried both for their safety and for the public perception of them as inherently untrustworthy.

This is what always happens. To give just one example, go to the archives and check what happened when a demented Arab-American military man fatally shot several of his colleagues at a military base in Forth Worth, Texas.

Now, no one in Wales is losing sleep over Manning. Nor are American homosexuals on whose behalf he supposedly did what he did apologizing to their government. In fact, this week American gays were rewarded with a repeal of the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy. Interestingly, Manning was invoked in many instances to illustrate the danger of keeping the policy: it was argued that gay people who felt discriminated against by the policy would always be tempted to subvert their country. Interesting, isn’t it?

In a widely cited essay titled “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, Peggy McIntosh, a white antiracist scholar, wrote, among other things, that  white privilege is being able to do objectionable things “without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty or the illiteracy of my race.”

That is precisely why Assange and Manning aren’t stereotyped as representatives of their race or of their religion. They are simply individuals who made their own choices, who have chosen to deviate from the norm.

Such a privilege is never extended to “others.” Here in America, for instance, people expect me to know and explain why Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to blow an airline last year, or why some Nigerians engage in 419 scams. In fact, I am somehow expected to prove that I am different from them. Such an unfair world.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Neologisms and Ebonics in American English

By Farooq A. Kperogi

Americans have a robust imagination for coinages, what grammarians call neologisms. As you can imagine, their repertoire of coinages is inexhaustible, and I can never do justice to them in a column.

Most of the new coinages in American English result from Americans’ obsession with the short forms of words. Over time, these short forms take a life of their own and get weaned from the longer versions of the words from which they were originally derived.

The most prominent example of this is “gas,” the American word for “petrol.” At first, I thought it was singularly illogical to use gas as an alternative name for petrol because while gas is air, petrol is liquid. But I soon found out that gas is actually the shortened form of gasoline, which is a scarcely used alternative word for petrol in British English.

Now, Americans go to “gas stations” instead of petrol stations to fill their tanks, which we sell to them as “petrol” from Nigeria!

Another common culinary neologism, especially in the American South, is “combo,” which simply means the full complement of a meal. Koko, doya da dankali, (i.e. pap, fried yam, and fried sweet potato) for instance, will qualify as a combo. I was surprised to find out that the word is actually only a shortened form of “combination.” When I was an undergraduate at Bayero University Kano, we used to jocularly call that kind of food “combined honors.”

Other popular shortened forms of words that have grown into full words are “peds” for pedestrians, “condo” for condominium (a huge building that consists of several self-contained apartments that are individually owned), “legit” for legitimate or walk (the latter sense derived from “leg it), “max” for maximum, and so on. In fact, “max” is now often used in a verb form. It is not unusual to hear Americans say, “I've maxed out the gas in my car,” meaning I have used up all the petrol in my car.

Because Americans are such incredibly busy people, they have contempt for elaborate and long forms in their conversational language. Many years ago, one of my American professors called me and said, “Hey, Farooq, your recs are on my table. Go pick them up.” Well, I found out after a day that he was telling me to pick up the “recommendation” letters he wrote for me.

There are, of course, regional variations in American English. Louisiana English, for instance, has heavy tinctures of French and African influences. The word “lagniappe,” for instance, is an exclusively Louisiana invention, even though it is now usual to hear many people in the South use it. (It is pronounced LANYAP).

It means a small gift, especially one given by a merchant to a customer who makes a purchase. But this definition does not adequately capture the cultural meaning of the word. Its exact socio-linguistic equivalent is “jaara” in Hausa (now incorporated into Nigerian Pidgin English).

It is also used to indicate any kind of addition or extras. While the word sounds and looks French, its semantic content is decidedly African. I once wrote about the intriguing convergence of French, Spanish, and African influences in Louisiana’s racial, cultural, and gastronomic landscape. This convergence also manifests in the socio-linguistic experience of the people in many ways. It is conceivable that the “jaara” culture was brought to Louisiana by former African slaves.

Ebonics is another kettle of fish altogether. I also once wrote that I am usually incapable of getting even the faintest tenor of a conversation with Black Americans when they speak in Ebonics. Originally called Negro Nonstandard English (NNE), Ebonics emerged as a result of the deliberate policy if white slave owners to deny Blacks access to education. So an impoverished form of English sprouted in the absence of access to the socially prestigious form. Ebonics sounds to me like a hotchpotch of mutilated English syntax, garbled and ungainly English structure, African-inflected pronunciational forms, and an unnaturally fast speech pattern.

However, many people have said that Ebonics is a legitimate, semantically self-sufficient language that does not need the approval of Standard English to exist. And I agree. But what I detest about Ebonics, especially of the ghetto variety, is its proneness to profanity and vulgarity. It is usually riddled with many swearwords and sexually explicit expressions. The men call themselves “nigga” (not a spelling error), a differently spelled version of the racially denigrating epithet that white racists reserve for blacks. Black women are called or call themselves “bitches.” Of course, these are broad strokes that ignore many subtleties.

Well, because Black Americans now dominate the American cultural scene and are therefore the cultural icons for many young people, including young white people, many expressions that were exclusive to Ebonics have now crept into demotic American speech.

For instance, when Americans say something is “bad” with a stress that makes the word sound like baaad, it means it’s really very good! It’s Ebonics’ contribution to American English. Inflections like badder and baddest, instead of the standard worse and worst, are also common in colloquial American English—another influence of Ebonics. And the American English expression “my bad!” to mean “I’m sorry; it was my fault” owes its roots to Ebonics.

Lastly, many of the expressions that starry-eyed linguistic idealists in Nigeria label as “Nigerian English” are actually American English expressions by way of Ebonics. Expressions like “senior brother” instead of the standard “elder brother,” “junior brother” instead of younger brother (it is often said that the adjectives “senior” and “junior” indicate social relationships while “elder” and “younger” indicate biological relationships), and many others too numerous to mention here, are as common in informal American English as they are in Nigerian English. So are expressions like “often times,” “of recent” (instead of “of late”), and so on, which British and Nigerian grammarians dismiss as solecisms.

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