Friday, October 21, 2016

"The" Key to Othering

I'm beginning to think Trump will go down in history as the candidate to inspire the most hashtags. And not in a good way. In addition to inspiring the #TrumpBookReport tag I blogged about yesterday, he's also inspired #TheAfricanAmericans, to highlight the fact that when Trump talks about racial and ethnic minorities, he always uses "the": "the African Americans," "the Hispanics," and so on. What's next?

Many people are calling this use of "the" racist. Not too surprising considering all of the racist, sexist garbage Trump has thrown out during this election cycle. But is using "the" racist? After all, he uses it in speeches about how he wants to help these groups. For instance:
I’m going to help the African Americans. I’m going to help the Latinos, Hispanics. I am going to help the inner cities. [Clinton has] done a terrible job for the African Americans.
Fortunately, Lynne Murphy, a linguist at the University of Sussex is here to explain why this tiny word keeps setting off your "this guy's a racist" alarms:
“The” makes the group seem like it’s a large, uniform mass, rather than a diverse group of individuals. This is the key to “othering:” treating people from another group as less human than one’s own group. The Nazis did it when they talked about die Juden (“the Jews”). Homophobes do it when they talk about “the gays.” In my research on British and American cultural relations, I’ve found that British writers’ views on American English are a good predictor of whether they’ll write “Americans say it that way” or “The Americans say it that way.” Those who feel that American English threatens British English use “the” to hold Americans at arm’s length (possibly while holding their noses).

Trump’s “the” works as a dog-whistle to disaffected rural white voters attracted to his message. At the very least, he is demonstrating to those voters that he is keeping other groups distanced—that, like them, he sees African-Americans and Latinos as something over there, in the inner cities (and the White House), rather than as millions of individual Americans with as much invested in the future of this country as its white citizens.

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