Are Race Relations a Verbal Agnosia?

The celebration of Martin Luther King Day along with several reader posts on my earlier blog piece, Greenville, Texas: The Blackest Land and the Whitest People, have made me think more deeply about race relations. Let me share a definition and then coin a new term that hopefully will contribute to racial understanding.

Agnosia: Loosely defined, it’s a perceptual state of looking but not seeing, or hearing the sounds but not hearing the meaning.

   Prosopagnosia, for example, is a neurological condition in which a person looks at a face but is unable to recognize the person, even when it is a close friend or relative.

Let me introduce a new phrase, verbal agnosia.

(What did you expect with a neurologist writing this blog. Hang in there, I’ll get around to making my point.)

From comments made regarding my earlier blog piece, the same word “whitest” from the famous sign in Greenville has different perceived meanings from either black or some white commentators.

Now, I realize some folks are unalterably racist and beyond redemption.  Some other folks, no matter how much progress toward racial harmony has been made, will always feel aggrieved. These are not the people about whom I use my recently minted term, verbal agnosia.

I instead refer to people who are simply unable to perceive the term “whitest” has any racial overtones whatsoever and who fail to see how it might offend others black members of their community. Alternatively others are unable to appreciate that some folks use the term in a non-racial, highly regional form. I know some who are not racist but merely verbally agnostic to the negative perception of this term. I suspect the black residents of Greenville have all heard the benign interpretation of the sign but may remain unconvinced. Might honest communication fix this state of affairs and enhance understanding?

A number of comments from white Greenville residents exist on my blog. I believe they honestly believe “whitest” refers to honest, true, or best. Indeed, growing up in Texas, I heard this word used in this very way. But one only has to research the development of the usage of “whitest” before coming across its origin in a very racist society where white clad Ku Klux Klan rode unhindered and lynchings of black men occurred.

Outside of Greenville, Texas my brother-in-law, a native to Greenville, discovered he could not find a person of either race who thought the term anything but offensive. So too thought the then Governor of Texas, John Connally, when he asked the City Fathers of Greenville to remove the famous (infamous) banner that hung across Main Street. It was taken down “for repair” and never put back up. This “for repairs”, I suppose, was a necessary euphemism as many white Greenville citizens were verbally agnostic to the offensive way the sign was perceived by many others.

Only through communication can we become aware of the verbal sensitivities of others. We simply may not recognize what we say or how we say it, may be offensive to others.

Simply waiting and hoping that things will eventually get better, merely delays the understanding necessary to reduce racial prejudices and delays getting over our miscommunications. I have been criticized for writing about the banner, an old and negative aspect of Greenville (an adopted city I love), that some would choose to keep buried. The Chamber of Commerce undoubtedly would not be keen on resurrecting remembrance of the banner., yet it needs the sanitizing effect of daylight.

Good folks who hold different perspectives on this famous sign or on other flashpoints of race relations need to communicate in calm, rational voices. Might discussions over civil war statues fall into this category? Let’s have interracial discussions. Hopefully my blog pieces on this topic have offered an opportunity to do just this.

Through our improved understanding we can begin to make the progress called for by the great Martin Luther King, Jr. I remain inspired by so many of his appeals to our better natures including the following which is one of my personal favorites:

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character– Martin Luther King, Jr.

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