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Speech in the Schools

Demographic Meanings

Published July 16, 2015 7:26 PM by Teresa Roberts

“My caseload is really diverse. About 25% of the students are African-American, 25% are Hispanic, 25% are Asian, and the rest are American.”

One of my colleagues offered this description of her caseload at a social event attended by other clinicians and university faculty. Did you notice anything interesting about the above statement? Perhaps you thought about the diversity of students that the clinician served. Maybe you wondered about the school’s community.

Sometimes word choices provide insight into our conceptual frameworks and the differences in how we each organize our own view of the world. People interpret statements based on many factors, including sensitivity to dominant majority and minority status.

One interpretation of the above caseload description is: About 25% of the students are African-American, 25% are Hispanic, 25% are Asian, and 25% are White.
Look closely, because this is not what was actually stated. It assumes that the term “American” is synonymous with “White”. Are these two words the same?

Another equally valid interpretation is: Students who are African-American, Hispanic, and Asian are not American. Only students who are White are American.
This was not overtly stated. The original statement categorized students into four groups: African-American, Hispanic, Asian, and American. Since the group “American” was separated from the other three culturally determined racial/ethnic groups, it appears as though these groups are not the same as the group that is considered “American”. They are not American. They are something else.

SEE ALSO Multicultural Care 

Dr. Derald Wing Sue, of Columbia University, introduced the term “microggressions”.  A microaggression may be a slight wording choice that separates or alienates an individual or group. Often a speaker is completely unaware of any negative connotations and may not overtly harbor any ill will toward anyone. The person committing the microaggression may feel innocent of any wrongdoing, however, the prevalence, frequency, and consistency of microaggressions may perpetuate privilege and power.

Disenfranchised, minority, and underrepresented groups recognize the subtle, likely unintentional comments and behaviors that signify separation. The word “American” is not a synonym for “White” and to use it as such divides people. This is only one of many ways that a person may, verbally or nonverbally, communicate a sense of non-belonging to another person.

Many people respond that usage of politically correct language is already too extreme, as though we have the inherent right to speak without consideration of how our words shape reality. I believe that my colleague cares about the students she serves and her school community. Somehow, through institutionalized, cultural practices, she has correlated the trait of “White” to the meaning of “American”.

It takes a great deal of courage to question the ramifications of how information is presented. When we question seemingly simple words, we advocate for ourselves, for the children we once were, and for the children who are in school today. Census data from National Center for Educational Statistics listed that 48.3% of public school age children were categorized as Non-White (African-American, Hispanic, Asian/Pacific Islander, and Mixed Race), and 51.7% were classified as White.

Perhaps one day, it will be easy for everyone to say that all of these children are American.

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Doesnt this apply to all groups?  For example, why am I "white" but Oprah is "African American"?  Am I to understand that my skin tone is more defining than my ethnic origin? Only one group is defined now by color because using "black" is considered to be inappropriate. Why is that?

sally vogel July 26, 2015 11:03 AM

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About this Blog

    Speech in the Schools
    Occupation: School-based speech-language pathologists
    Setting: Traditional and specialized K-12 classrooms
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