An outsider’s perspective on language

Tyanna SlobeI spent my winter break in South America hanging out and travelling with friends that I met when I studied abroad in Santiago, Chile. Spanish is the only language that I speak other than English and I am especially attentive to all of the intonations, dialects and vocabulary of the language since I did not learn it as a child, but only recently. Learning a second language has everything to do with paying very close attention to how native speakers navigate their mother tongue.

Despite the amount of time that I have spent in Santiago, Chilean Spanish never ceases to amaze me. My friends –– who I think very highly of and are all amazing people –– drop words and phrases into their everyday language that I would never dream of using in English because they are things that I would consider classist, racist, sexist and homophobic. Returning to Chile over break was a shocking reminder of how uncomfortable this sort of language makes me.

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One day a friend was telling me a story about how he was trying to get to the airport to meet someone but didn’t have a cell phone so he couldn’t and he felt dumb. He referred to himself in the situation as being “muy indio” or very Indian, very Native American.

I told him that referring to himself in a situation where he didn’t have any technology and felt idiotic as a result as “Native American” seemed to me like a racist statement, especially given the marginalization of Native Americans in Chile and all over the Americas.

We got into an argument –– as is usually the case when I call people out for making racist comments –– and he told me that I didn’t get it because I am not Chilean and I do not understand the ways of their language and culture.

A few days later I uploaded pictures to Facebook from my friend’s Pink Floyd cover band show. In one of the pictures I was scantily dressed, dripping in sweat, my tongue was hanging out and I was giving the rock ‘n’ roll signal. Someone left a comment on the picture that read, “white trash.”

“White trash” is something that people refer to each other as all of the time for looking and acting like I was in that picture. People even have “white trash” themed parties. It’s a fairly normal term in our language –– everyone knows what it means and many people think that it is a funny thing to call someone. Few people take offense to being called “white trash,” and I didn’t. I, like many people, would have thought the comment was funny.

Over the next few days, I started thinking about it more and more and what exactly “white trash” means.

Generally, the term connotes an image of poor people. People who live in low income housing. People who come from low income families that tend to have higher rates of alcoholism, addiction and domestic violence. People whose language varies from Standard American English. People who do not have access to quality public education or higher education. People who do not have access to healthcare. People who are extremely marginalized in American society.

“White trash” by definition also has to do with race. The phrase refers to Caucasians who are considered “less than” a stereotypical middle class white person –– hence “trash.” “White trash” links certain white people with people of color who are also often considered by society as being “less than” the stereotypical middle class white person. It promotes racial divides by suggesting that the worse thing a white person could do is fall into the same socio economic category as people of color have historically been a part of in the United States.

In their respective contexts, like those mentioned above, the terms “indio” and “white trash” are very classist and racist. They’re also very normal Spanish and English words, to the extent that it is difficult for an insider to recognize the social context of their referents.

My friend wasn’t right when he said that I do not know enough about Spanish and Chilean culture to understand why “indio” in that context was a racist and classist comment. In fact, I understand exactly what it meant. However, I think that he was onto something. I am too much of an outsider to the language to have that sort of statement seem normal and inoffensive.

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It is far more difficult to notice the harmful and degrading nuances that are normalized in your native language. It is an interesting idea, though, to look at English in its social context from an outsider’s perspective.

What kinds of things do we say everyday that feed into racist, classist, sexist, homophobic, and other divides –– the ones that help maintain a status quo? What kinds of things do we inadvertently say every day that reinforce discourses about marginalized groups being “different,” “less than,” “weird,” or “other?” Who exactly is benefiting from this sort of language being normalized and why do we allow such racist and classist things like “white trash” exist as normal and harmless comments?

I think that taking a step back and looking at the language that we use from an outsider’s perspective –– even the most seemingly normal words and phrases –– would yield shocking results similar to my own surprise at my Chilean friend’s language.