November 26, 2012

Gates and Puddin'head Wilson

One part of Gates’ argument in regards to race that really stuck out for me was this quote; “we carelessly use language in such a way as to will this sense of natural difference into our formulations”. This is argument is that different races have distinct ways of speaking that are inherent to jut their race, without any regard to their social standing, upbringing, or geographical region. There is, of course, nothing in a set of genes that indicates how you speak, that is all influenced in the environment you grow up in. However, Gates’ is correct in claiming that we make assumptions about a person’s race by the way that they speak.

One example that is very clear in my mind is from Mark Twain’s The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson. In one particular scene, the title character is walking down the street when he hears a female voice speaking loudly from behind him in the distinctive dialect of a black slave. He turns around, expecting to see a black-skinned woman, but instead sees a fair-skinned woman. The woman’s name is Roxy and she is a slave, despite her white skin; To all intents and purposes Roxy was as white as anybody, but the one sixteenth of her which was black outvoted the other fifteen parts and made her a negro. She was a slave, and salable as such. Her child was thirty-one parts white, and he, too, was a slave, and by a fiction of law and custom a negro”. The point Twain is trying to make, and I think that Gates would agree with it, is that Roxy speaks in such a way because that is how she was brought up to speak, to think that she had to speak that way as a genetic pre-disposition, despite not having any other physical traits. It is also worth noting that the major plot point of the story is that Roxy switches her child with that of her master’s. The both of them were both so fair-skinned, that the only way to tell them apart was their clothing. Roxy’s child grows up being taught to speak the “white” way, while the master’s child, now under Roxy’s care, was brought up to speak in the slave dialect. Obviously, their genes did not enable them to speak the “proper” dialect connected to their race. They spoke as they were taught to.

By entertaining preconceived notions of how a specific race should sound, we really learn nothing at all about the person who is actually speaking.  


Rdexheimer said...

While this is a fair objection, I don't think that Gates was arguing for the concept of race in a "crude naturalistic" fashion. It isn't that Gates disregards social standing, upbringing, and geographical region, it's that these are the factors which socially construct our perception of race and racial difference. I don't think that Gates sees race as an objective measurement to be drawn from empirically quantifiable characteristics. Rather, race is a relatively modern social invention whose stipulations are relative to a particular culture. I've always read Puddinhead Wilson as not so much criticizing the racial sensibilities contemporary to its time period (though it certainly did), but that its primary focus was to cast doubt on a naturalistic conception of race entirely showing that race is instead a highly subjective and arbitrary social evaluation, as the "race" that others may identify us is contingent upon a specific social context of time and place.

Drea Fetchik said...

I think that we make assumptions about the way people look and speak, you put people into a bubble so that way you know how to handle them in a public and one on one basis. It's like a personal way to protect yourself.

I have to disagree about us learning nothing from who is actually speaking, if anything we learn the most from them. their voice, or idea of what their voice speaks like shows their up bringing. The way they were thought to think of their race or someone else's. It show the ignorance, generalization or truthfulness of the way they were taught to present themselves, or how they thought others presented themselves

Jen said...

I agree with the commenter's idea of race in Twain's novel, that it is highly subjective and a social construct. But I still remain that this was a good example to bring into discussion. The idea in Twain's novel that Roxy's son and her master's son, switch and are therefore raised in different conditions with different customs and speech, shows how heavily nurture creates the racial profile society caves into. Since clearly their nature was changed when they were switched between households, that leaves us to believe that their racial profile is entirely dependent on how they were raised rather than the family genetics they were born into.

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