Friday, April 25, 2008

Language Matters

Language matters. The words that we use, particularly those most common in our speech, are as important to who we are as the food that we consume, the clothes that we wear, and the neighborhoods where we live. Language is essential in the human experience and caring for our language is one of our greatest responsibilities. We have formed habits that affect our language and speech and our writing. We need to be thoughtful where language is concerned.

I have noticed a disturbing trend in the last decade, primarily among the running community. I am not certain if this misuse of language is ill-intentioned, but I think we can do better. When middle of the pack runners refer to those who win prestigious races, they use a common term—“Kenyans.” We who use this language are almost exclusively slower than the elite and we are almost always White or Caucasian. White upper-middle class folks represent the majority of the endurance running community. We also represent the power structures of the world, and I think it is time we take better care of our speech. We are using the term, “Kenyan,” a bit too haphazardly. We have become sloppy with our speech.

How many times have Haile Gebrselassie or Kenensia Bekele been labeled as a Kenyan when finishing at the front of a major race? My guess is that it is not once or even twice that these gentlemen have been mislabeled. Granted, it is possible that the next 10 finishers were all from Kenya, perpetuating the word choice, by the very excellence and accomplishment of runners from Kenya. But these gentlemen are Ethiopian, an entirely different nationality. What they do have in common with many elite Kenyan distance runners is that they are fast and their skin color is dark. I am not of the belief that because I am white and a mid-pack runner that it is just okay for an onlooker to assume that I am Canadian. I am from a whole other country. In the case of Gebrselassie and Bekele, it is even more insulting given the pride that they take in their homeland. They are always seen wearing the colors of Ethiopia. Gebrselassie has given his country an amazing economic boost from his personal success. At various times in his career, he has held every world record from 3000 meters to the Marathon. If I am distance running fan and I call him a Kenyan, I am ignorant, and I insult him.

This article intends no disrespect to any Kenyan or the nation of Kenya. Kenya has produced some of the finest distance runners the world has ever seen, but not all African runners of success are Kenyan.

How is this assumption, this lumping together of fast runners of African descent, any different than labeling all Latinos as Mexicans? We need precision in our language.

Are we using the term Kenyan collectively because names like Robert Cheruiyot, Abderrahime Bouramdane, Khalid El Boumlili, Gashaw Asfaw and Kasime Adillo are too much trouble to try to learn how to pronounce? Is there skin color a latent factor in our lack of care to know them by name and by country? Is there a subtle religious arrogance, since some of them are of Muslim descent? These names represent the top five finishers at the 2008 Boston Marathon, yet only one of them, Cheruiyot, is from Kenya. Many of us who might see the results and lazily say something like, “The Kenyans finished an hour ahead of me at Boston. I can’t believe how fast they are.” How is that different than making an off-handed remark like, “The Mexicans who cut the grass in our neighborhood, they are really great guys.” What if it turns out that in fact the lawn service is two brothers from El Salvador and the simple fact is that I have not bothered to find out where the men were born and from which Spanish speaking country they come from.
Even when our remarks are basically well-meaning, acknowledging an excellent running performance or being thankful for those who work hard, we need to be careful with language. It is not simply that we live now in “P.C.” or Politically Correct world where we have to walk on egg shells in order not to offend. It’s more than that. Being careful with language reflects how we take care of one another. Labels matter. Whenever we begin to speak of people collectively we had better know what we are talking about and who we are talking about. Runners from East Africa have revolutionized distance running around the globe from Kip Keino to Juma Ikanga to Sydney Maree and Paul Tergat. Let’s not call them all Kenyans because they look like they might be from Kenya. Ethiopia, Tanzania, and the like, deserve their props as well.
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