Further notes on how words’ meanings affect thinking

A while back I wrote: “Again I heard a speaker use the term “urban” as a synonym for Black in the ethnic sense. Earlier, the mayor of Memphis had responded to a comment that his city was 78% Black with, “Yes, it is an urban city.” Wow. And yesterday, I heard Chris Matthews on MSNBC do the same thing, using “urban” when he was directly referring to African-Americans.”

An urban school district is of course in an urban setting, but by ‘urban’ people mean the student body consists mainly of minority youth; poverty is also associated with it. An amazingly swift shift in meaning of a common word.

Words can be tricky. When we are communicating across languages and cultures, helpful scholars write books like Pitfalls of German or some such. In perusing my new Larousse French-English English-French dictionary making up my granddaughter’s French lessons, I find good attempts at clarifying the cultural context of words. L’aggregation seems to be equivalent to our National Teacher Certification Board. One powerful example, powerful b/c it threatened the unity of a religion on American soil, came to me recently and I can’t find that I have told the story here. It requires context, so bear with me.

When my wife and were either newly married or engaged, we were picked up by some friends who belonged to a religion called Baha’i. My wife is African-American and I am White and the Baha’is had as a major principle the equality of all peoples. As a result, there were a lot of African-Americans and mixed couples among them. While we never joined the religion, we continued an association with Baha’is for several decades. Among the Baha’is were a number of immigrants from Iran b/c Iran is the birthplace of the faith. But they were few and assimilated.

That all changed in 1979 when the Iranian Revolution installed a Muslim cleric who revved up the persecution of the Baha’is in Iran. Baha’is tended to be more educated and wealthier than many Iranians, and sophisticated, and thus attracted ire, but it was mainly b/c they were not Muslim. With increasing persecution, many Iranian Baha’is emigrated to the U.S. where they joined with local Baha’i communities. They were welcomed and brought an indigenous form of the faith with them. All seemed well.

But over time, friction developed between Iranian Baha’is and African-American Baha’is. The problem seemed to be that the African-Americans, in the 80s and 90s were agitating for equality across the board, including on issues little comprehended by the immigrants, like who appears on the covers of magazines or gets lead roles in movies. It puzzled them b/c they were unaware of the complex racial history of this country and of how recently, just 14 years before the Revolution in Iran, the Congress passed the Voting Rights Act. To them, the American Blacks had all the advantages of American citizens: speaking the language, knowing the culture, not having their citizenship questioned (until Obama came along) and, most of all, no discrimination against them. That’s right! No discrimination that the Iranian immigrants could see.

As the ‘fireside discussions’ in homes grew tense and African-Americans saw the Iranians as White and willfully not understanding the situation, someone decided here in Arizona to call a large meeting in Tucson to air this out. Interested, I went down there and found a very large crowd with the several elements of the Baha’i population represented. The discussion opened and took pretty much the same route it did at the firesides and other intersections of Black Baha’is, Iranian Baha’is and people like myself who hated seeing these two groups at loggerheads

I can’t say that that night produced a resolution but it did reveal one amazing and enlightening fact concerning language. Being recent immigrants, the Iranians often spoke Farsi among themselves. At one point, an Anglo lady standing in the back raised her hand. She explained that she had lived in Iran for many years and spoke Farsi fluently. She simply wanted to point out the the Iranians, when talking about “discrimination”, used a word meaning specifically “religious discrimination” b/c that was what they faced in Iran. They saw an African-American walking into a bank or a department store as being someone not foreign b/c of the way he spoke and presumably Christian since most African-Americas are Christians. So what’s the problem? Your cries of discrimination seem to be excuses for not working hard like we immigrants who came here with so little (except an education and connections to wealthy Iranian Baha’is here) and succeeding in this “great country”. Gnashing of teeth.

How accurate my interpretation of immigrant Baha’is’ attitudes are I don’t know. I’d love for someone in the community to respond to this. But regardless of the accuracy, the point the lady made is a good one and cautions us, even when we are dealing with English speakers from other English-speaking countries and even our own kids, who appear to use words differently from the way us old folks do, to ask: Definition, please.

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