Politicians bring to light issues of racial sensitivity in their use of language

By Melanie Johnson

Rod Blagojevich has been ridiculed recently because of comments characterizing himself as black. “I’m blacker than Barack Obama,” he said. “I shined shoes. I grew up in a five-room apartment. My father had a little laundromat in a black community not far from where we lived; I saw it all growing up.”

I believe that Blagojevich was trying to illustrate the adversity and circumstances he faced growing up. His point was to show how hard he had to work to become successful; it wasn’t just handed to him on a silver platter. Still, comments like these make me wonder what others think it means to be “black,” and what does it take to be a successful African American in this country? In Blagojevich’s case owning a laundromat, living in an apartment, and being poor makes him more like a black person. Others may criticize these comments but deep inside they probably feel the same way – including blacks.

Just a few days before Blagojevich’s quote, Senator Majority Leader, Harry Reid, issued an apology for his controversial comments that created great turmoil in the media and political world. It was revealed in an upcoming book, ColorBlindness, that Reid privately said that he believed Barack Obama was well suited for a presidential run because he is a “light-skinned” African American “with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.”

Even though many found this disrespectful and racist, I believe that Harry Reid’s words are a perspective that many people in America hold, especially in the workforce. Reid’s comments broadcasted how blacks are perceived in America, and even though it was offensive I think it was an eye opener for blacks to get their act together and change for the better.

While Reid was wrong for implying that Obama was more successful because he is lighter skinned, I believe that he did make a valid point regarding dialect and how he speaks. Ebonics and slang is common in the black community, though is widely considered unprofessional to use in the workplace. It is unlikely that people would get hired if in their interview they said things like: “ya’ll should hire me” or “wa’tch iz da qualifications fo’ dis job.” How one talks can take away from their presentation and credentials.

I believe many blacks were offended by Reid’s reference to black vernacular not because it isn’t true but because it came from a white man. If Jesse Jackson had said it, blacks would not have been as offended.

We all have controversial opinions about other races and ethnicities. Today people are highly sensitive when people mention their race or compare themselves to others. Many tensions still exist between Americans because of past mistreatment. But if perceptions between people of different races are to change, it will require that people be more sensitive about what they say and less sensitive about what they hear.