Using Coded Language Can 'Create A Sense Of Us And Them'

May 13, 2019

We're looking at the impact of using "loaded" words, such as labels that describe certain areas of Milwaukee, in our latest Beats Me. For example, "inner city" is a term that may ignite many thoughts.

One dictionary definition says the inner city is "the usually older, poorer, and more densely populated central section of a city." A post on a travel site from 2017 advises people visiting Milwaukee to "stay away from certain areas in the inner city … including the northern part of the city."

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It's this kind of language that has a member of our community calling for a stop in using the label "inner city."

She says she's "always kind of resented that most of the labeling comes from the press and from suburbanites. And one of them that's particularly annoying is inner city because of the implications."

Pat Mayes, an English professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, says there's referential meaning in language.

"You might understand it as the denotation. So, that would be like the literal meaning," she says.

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Then, there's social and affective meanings that have subtle meanings and connotations. Mayes says speakers may not always be fully aware of the impact. But she says connotations behind "inner city" or "north side" are a good example of how language can change over time.

"We might have started using 'north side' in a literal way to refer to a particular area of the city. But then through use and associations with certain kinds of negative things — like crime, police activity — then these words can take on negative meaning." she explains.

So, who's responsible for creating those associations?

Keith Woods of NPR thinks the media play a huge role. He's vice president of newsroom training and diversity.

"In communities, when you say, 'inner city,' which is a geographic location, too often we are not talking about a geographical location but the race and class of people that live in the community. ... In this case, inner city, what people are saying is poor or black and brown. Until you start saying it straight up, the language will continue to be encoded. And when you encode language that way you create a sense of us and them," he says.

Woods says that can have larger sociological and societal consequences.

"In this case, inner city, what people are saying is poor or black and brown. Until you start saying it straight up, the language will continue to be encoded. And when you encode language that way you create a sense of us and them." — NPR's Keith Woods

So, what do people who live in what some consider the inner city think about the label?

I visited the Sherman Phoenix — a hub of black owned businesses — on Fond du Lac Avenue to find out.

Some say they avoid the term "inner city" because of its negative implications. For instance, that it pertains to under privileged or under resourced communities.

Evan Figures says she associates the label with poverty, adding that people who aren't from the area probably think the same. "The inner city is where we get all the bad media and the bad exposure," Figures says.

Celina Redd, who lives near Rufus King High School, says there are preconceived notions about people who live on the north side. That people are hopeless, jobless or uneducated. But she doesn't take it personally when she hears the term "inner city."

"There's this sense, especially in this city, of division. Segregation is so serious in this city. And I think we often buy into those preconceived notions that if we move to the suburbs we've made it," Redd says. "But the same issues that happen in the city of Milwaukee are happening in the suburbs. You just don't hear about it."

She says these terms can be problematic, but only because people give them power and they don't have to.

So, what can we do?

Changing language and its meanings doesn't happen overnight. But being aware of the implications of what we say can be a first step in the right direction.

Support for Race & Ethnicity reporting is provided by the Dohmen Company.

Do you have a question about race in Milwaukee that you'd like WUWM's Teran Powell to explore? Submit it below.

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