What to call the Other: A data-driven history of the New York Times’ racial labeling

The word negro makes me uncomfortable. I never hear it, but I occasionally read it. There’s a pretty famous book by sociolinguist Walt Wolfram (Professor of English, North Carolina State University) called A Sociolinguistic Description of Detroit Negro Speech published in 1969. Every time I see the book, the title makes me cringe, but I don’t think Wolfram had any intention to use a word he felt was pejorative. Indeed, he was trying to make the point that African Americans’ speech was not a sloppy, substandard use of language but rather a rule-governed variety of English in its own right. And if you’re not convinced then consider this: in his speech, “I Have a Dream” (delivered in 1963), Martin Luther King Jr. used the term negro fifteen times. I, of course, did not live through the 1960s. I’m part of a generation that seems to have a collective gut feeling that the word is unacceptable.  Read more ›

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Posted in Language and race, Media discourse and media bias

We call men abrasive. Except when it matters.

Over the past several months, I’ve been looking at the gendered way we portray leadership qualities. This has included looking at words like bossy and pushy which we assign with much greater frequency to women than men.

Today, I saw a new word pop up in the news, abrasive, thanks to Kieran Snyder’s report examining the different ways in which women and men in the tech industry were described in performance reviews. She found that women generally received more negative feedback from their reviewers. Among the differences was a greater frequency of words commenting on their personal, managerial, or conversational style such as bossy and another that Snyder found particularly interesting: abrasive (the title of her piece for Fortune is “The abrasiveness trap”)In her article, she reports that in the 248 reviews she examined, abrasive was used seventeen times to describe thirteen women but not a single time for a man. Read more ›

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Posted in Language and gender

Militant, radical, man-hating: How our public discourse describes feminists

When Beyoncé celebrated the word feminist on Sunday night, she was working against a history of celebrities and others rejecting the label feminist. Why do so many women, famous or not, reject the term, while seeming to support the basic principles of feminism? One possible reason is the way the word has been used in the media both traditional media venues and internet websites.

Jessica Bennett asked me about the usage of the word, so in order to examine how feminist has been used by people producing television shows, radio broadcasts, magazines, newspapers, and websites, I looked at the collocates of the word feminist (including related form feminists) using two different corpora. Read more ›

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Posted in Language and gender, Media discourse and media bias

Two tales of Gaza: Comparing FOX and CNN’s coverage of the violence

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In the past month we’ve seen the unfolding of another chapter in the bloody conflict between Israelis and Palestinians in Gaza. Since this conflict is, for me and probably many of my readers, taking place halfway around the world, the primary way we come to understand it is through reading accounts of it in news reports. However, even allegedly ‘objective’ news reporting can’t help but make choices that reveal particular ideological biases. Read more ›

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Posted in Language and politics, Media discourse and media bias

Demystifying dog whistle racism

Recently, I’ve noticed people using the term “dog whistle” before things like racism and classism. Although not the originator of the term, Ian Haney López (Professor of Law, University of California-Berkeley) has recently written a great deal about the concept as it relates to racial politics in the United States in his book Dog Whistle Politics (some of which is excerpted on Salon, herehere, and here).

Haney López’s argument goes something like this. As overt or explicit racism has become increasingly seen as distasteful by White voters in the United States, politicians have had to eliminate it from their discourse. However, the potential benefits of appealing to racism have not necessarily subsided especially for a subset of White conservatives. As a result, conservative politicians use “coded” language to avoid explicitly mentioning race while still sending White supremacist messages to a conservative base. As a result, Haney López argues that the racism beneath the surface of these messages goes unnoticed by White liberals and moderates while being quite audible to the conservative base. Hence, the dog whistle metaphor. Read more ›

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Posted in Language and politics, Language and race

Women are 2.87 times more likely than men to be called pushy

My post looking at gendered descriptions of Jill Abramson has generated a little bit of attention. Notably, The Atlantic posted an article by Olga Khazan titled “Pushy is used to describe women twice as often as men”, citing my work.

I’ve been asked if The Atlantic headline is technically inaccurate. This question is based upon the astute observation that the description of “twice as often” fails to account for the fact that women are under-represented in the corpus. Read more ›

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Posted in Language and gender

Beyond bossy: More on our gendered characterizations of leadership and authority

You may have heard that Jill Abramson the former executive editor of the New York Times, was recently fired. I’ve been living the life of an academic hermit for the past couple of weeks, so thankfully Lynne Murphy (Reader in Dept. of Linguistics, University of Sussex) alerted me to the issue and pointed out that Abramson’s leadership and professional behavior were being described using potentially gendered language. Murphy noted in particular the use of pushy, and reading about Abramson in various articles (for example, here, here, and here), I found her described in numerous ways pushy, brusque, stubborn, and condescending Read more ›

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Posted in Language and gender, Media discourse and media bias
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