Monday, 16 November 2009

Why is the word "race" used 80 times more often than the phrase "skin color"?

"Salience has generally been described as the attribute of a particular stimulus that makes it stand out and be noticed . . ." Certainly, one attribute that could make a word "stand out and be noticed" is prolific use of a word or phrase in written and spoken language. In fact, anthropologists learn to read dead languages in part by noting the salience of words within that language and using this information to determine how important given words are and what function they serve within the language as a whole.

The question with respect to salience that interests me is why people in the United States of America talk about "race" ubiquitously, while avoiding the phrase "skin color" like the plague? The word "race" has been used 52.500.000 times, even if we exclude contexts in which the words "bicycle", "auto", "election" and "vote" were used, to exclude the possibility that the word "race" was used as anything but a synonym for "skin color group."

If we do not exclude contexts with the words "election" and "vote" (race -bike -bicycle -auto -ocean), during this year in which President Barack Obama was "elected" after a "vote", we find that word "race" has been used 377.000.000 times.

By contrast, a Google search of usage of the phrase "skin color" in the United States, over the last year, shows the phrase has only been used 5.530.000 searchable times in the United States during the last year, in all possible contexts combined. This shows a remarkably numerically superior salience for the word "race" in referring to differences in skin color and skin color groups.

Depending on how the Google search is conducted and which associated words and contexts are excluded in order to focus upon the use of the word "race" in terms of its association with skin color, we find that the word "race" has appeared at least nine times as often as skin color in this context, and as much as eighty times times more often than "skin color."

How and why can and do we talk so much about differences between people associated with skin color,while almost never using the phrase "skin color" when referring to skin color? In the study of color-aroused ideation, emotion and behavior, the perception of the skin color of oneself and of others is a "stimulus." Advertisers study stimuli to determine, for example which stimuli are more likely to prompt target markets to engage in a particular purchasing behavior.

With respect to the "salience" of stimuli, "A stimulus is said to be salient when it is prominent . . . ", i.e. when it is shown and perceived more times. The simple number of times that viewers are exposed to a political commercial for a given candidate or ballot proposition would be an example of the prevalence of a stimulus and political professionals believe that stimuli such as television and radio commercials are more likely to have a desired effect on people's voting behavior if they are salient, i.e. if they are seen more times. Voter familiarity with a particular candidate and the all-important "name recognition" increase with the number of television commercials potential voters see about that candidate.

As the graphic above indicates, "salience" is the "prominence" of a word or phrase in spoken or written language. Numerically, the media and the public in the USA prefer the word "race". The outsized salience of the word "race" as compared to the phrase "skin color" is particularly remarkable in light of the findings and pronouncements of the US Government's Human Genome Project, saying that "race" does not exist and it never did, while that skin color does manifestly exist as a matter of science. According to the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science, Office of Biological and Environmental Research, Human Genome Program:
DNA studies do not indicate that separate classifiable subspecies (races) exist within modern humans. While different genes for physical traits such as skin and hair color can be identified between individuals, no consistent patterns of genes across the human genome exist to distinguish one race from another. There also is no genetic basis for divisions of human ethnicity. People who have lived in the same geographic region for many generations may have some alleles in common, but no allele will be found in all members of one population and in no members of any other.

In other words, the Human Genome Project has proven that, as a matter of scientific fact, that which we call "race" does not exist as a matter of biology, and so all references to "race" are references to a fallacy.

Assuming that there is some purpose for the continued reference to a biological fantasy when other realistic synonyms are available, what is that purpose. A search for the terms "New York Times" and "race" in usages from the past twelve months (race "New York Times " -racing -auto -champion) turns up 6.360.000 examples. In comparison, a search for the word "skin color" at the New York Times, including all possible contexts, turns up only 126,000 examples. The New York Times prefers to use the word "race" as opposed to skin color by at least a factor of 50:1.

The "salience" of a word in our language effetcts our attitudes, studies and researchers have found. "Salience is an important characteristic of information influencing users' cognitive and emotional states,"says the Journal of Digital Information. Anthropologists study languages that are not used anymore and that no one can read by looking for the number of times each word appears in texts (salience of particular words) and determining thereby what importance the concept expressed by the word possessed to those who spoke the language. Ironically, perhaps anthropologists of the future, trying to understand the English langauge, would conclude that "race" was fifty times more important to Americans than skin color, or that those using the word "race" as opposed to skin color were trying to use the salience of the word to increase its value as stimuli.

In any case, it is apparent when we compare the numerical salience of the phrase "skin color" with the salience of the word "race" that "race" is approximately ten to eighty times more important to us than skin color. I suspect that this is because the term "race" comes pre-infested with the complex meanings that people give to skin color, while skin color is merely . . . skin color. The word "race" is, itself, a "code-word" that Americans use to signify much more than we are facially willing to admit that we are saying, regardless of whether they are Black or white.

This may explain both Americans unwillingness to take onboard the scientific determination that biological "race" does not exist as well as our overwhelming preference for the word "race." It means so much more to each of us than skin color,

When we say "race," we mean something far more complex - something about which people have such differing opinions within and between skin color groups that general agreement with respect to meaning of "race" is not possible. Everyone thinks something different in their mind when they express the word "race" with their mouths. The word enables us to have parallel conversations with people from our skin color group, without confessing to others outside our skin color group what we are actually expressing. It's a perfect codeword.

Now, let's bring this issue home. When I reported the above discoveries to my step-daughter (16), she told me that they don't pay any attention to such issues at her school, except in history class. And she told me that, "Sincerely, I find that I am much more happy not concerning myself with who's "Black" and who's "white" when we're watching a movie. I don't care how many Black people and a white people are in the movie and worrying about that is not going to make me happier. That is her reality, and I hope it will always be that way for her.

Meanwhile, my oldest step-daughter started straightening her hair last month and I just saw my youngest today, for the first time, with straightened hair. They see no untoward relationship between the ubiquity of straightened hair on television and in music videos, on the one hand, and their own fierce determination to straighten their own hair on the other hand. This is to say, they are unaware or uncaring about the society's efforts to socialize them with respect to skin color and skin-color aroused ideation, emotion and behavior, particularly as related to physical characteristics like hair.

This time, rather than argue with a daughter who had straightened her hair, I chose to pretend that I hadn't even noticed. The result is that we have not battled over something that, in any case, I cannot control. But I seriously doubt the person who says they are happier blissfully ignoring color-and feature-associated messages on television, but then chemically and or mechanically straighens their hair. It's rather like saying that it's better to ignore advertisements for McDonald's while eating breakfast lunch and dinner at McDonald's. The cultural salience of the idea that whatever white people have physically is better is having the very effect that is predicted in advertising industry discussions of salience.

Color arousal is like a fever that people have, regardless of skin color, without being aware of it.

Here is an article from Science Daily that does use the phrase "skin color" and addresses physiologically the determinants of skin color. Apparently, people who let science influence their use of language and their opinions prefer the word "skin color" to the word "race".

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