West High School in Anchorage, AK had their 2009 junior prom on January 25th. The embroidery shop at which I work was commissioned to make the sashes for the prom court royalty. Six princes, six princesses, and the sashes to be worn by the crowned 2009 Junior Prom King & Queen. They wanted them done a week beforehand, so that the prom court, elected by their peers, could show off their named sashes in the week leading up to prom. It was a pretty standard arrangement. We had all but the King and Queen sashes done on time. (I failed to sew the king and queen sashes in the right color. Bad me.) We gave them their prince and princess sashes on time and told them we’d get them their other two sashes as soon as they were done.
Well, on Wednesday of that week, we got a call from the activities director at the high school to commission eight more sashes at the last minute. It had turned out that all twelve of the students elected to the prom court were Caucasian. One of the teachers at the school, a black woman, raised a stink about it and singlehandedly forced the school to force the students to add eight minority students to their prom court.
I have two thoughts on this:
- Way to kill the democratic process. The school profile (pdf) you can download from the high school’s web site states that there are 1,768 students enrolled in the school and that “there are over 40 languages spoken by the students.” Everyone I’ve spoken to who went to West speaks of its very diverse student body. Does this woman really think that the students in a school with such diversity and with such a huge minority population would be so overwhelmingly racist as to choose twelve Caucasian prom court members on purpose? Couldn’t it possibly be that they really didn’t care what these people’s skin colors were and that all their favorite people just happened to be Caucasian?
- What’s the point? What are the chances that one of the people forced into the prom court got chosen for prom king or queen? The most popular people will still have been one of the twelve initially chosen. (I wish I knew who won the king and queen title, but as the sash embroiderer I’m not really in a position to find out.)
One can argue my first thought by pointing out that the Caucasian students may have been advantaged to start with, and that their advantaged status helped enable them to achieve the popularity needed to make the prom court. That’s a great argument. It really is. But that’s a larger social issue that started outside the school and which won’t be solved by forcing the students to diversify their prom court. Numerous studies in sociology have linked education to socioeconomic status in later life. How about redirecting the resources used to expand their prom court into bettering their education instead?
The whole thing is a perfect example of the problem with politically correct terminology: the use of politically correct terminology is well-meant, but it brings the issues it seeks to alleviate to the front of everyone’s minds. We as a society have carefully crafted terms which are designed to carry no connotation. That very lack of a connotation is a connotation in and of itself. “This is a very sensitive issue,” these terms say. “There’s a reason it’s taboo to say it another way.”
Politically correct terms only remain politically correct as long as they lack connotations, but the human mind relates things together as a natural part of the process of understanding things. In order to refrain from assigning connotations to these terms, we must constantly think about the fact that these terms have no connotations, which serves to keep the reasons for the lack of connotations fresh. Therefore, the use of politically correct terminology serves to perpetuate the need for politically correct terminology.
This whole thing put me in mind of a South Park episode I watched recently. It’s in season four and titled “Chef Goes Nanners.” In it, Chef makes a huge deal about the South Park flag needing to be changed, since it depicts four white guys hanging a black guy. The townsfolk, of course, are divided, with some citizens staunchly insisting that the flag’s design is a part of South Park’s history and shouldn’t be changed. The town ends up deciding to vote on the matter after the children have a debate about the flag design. It’s upon hearing the opening statements of the debate — none of which, on either side, have anything to do with racism — that Chef finally realizes that the children don’t see the racism issue of the flag’s design at all. To them, it doesn’t matter that it’s four white guys hanging a black guy because they don’t see a difference based on the color of skin. (If you want to watch the episode, it’s available as streaming media at www.southparkstudios.com.)