Friday, November 13, 2009

WHAT people?

A few days ago, I was listening to news coverage about Graham v. Florida and Sullivan v. Florida when I heard what is for me a dreaded phrase: "These people." Variations on "These people are unsalvageable. These people are recidivists. These people have nothing to offer society."

Although I hadn't heard of either of these cases previously, I immediately suspected that both Graham and Sullivan were black males. And I was right. Why? Because the vague designation of "these people" can only be used when the reference is obvious. And all too often, it is marginalized groups of society who are collectively characterized in this manner. I have heard "these people" used to refer to blacks, Asians, Muslims, homosexuals, and transgender individuals. Yes, individuals. The privilege to be considered individuals and not representations of an entire population is only granted to those in the majority. Try Googling "nidal malik hasan 'these people'" and nearly all of hits will use that phrase to designate...what? Islamic fundamentalists? All practioners of Islam? People with dark skin? By contrast, Googling "timothy mcveigh 'these people'" produces results in which the phrase refers as often to the victims or Washington politicians as to domestic terrorists.

Though not as blatantly derogatory as "you people" (think John McCain speaking to Latinos), I think we'd all be better off avoiding the use of "these people" or "those people". Let's say what we mean. At the very least, we avoid ambiguity. And perhaps, even, by asking ourselves the question, "WHAT people?" we might begin to notice our prejudices and assumptions and examine them.

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