H O W A R D   U N I V E R S I T Y

Faces & Voices 5
An Anthology
of Verse and Prose

the Composition
for Honours Class,
Howard University,

E. R. B

Faces & Voices 4


The Linguist’s Concealed Fears
By Robtel Neajai Pailey

      John McWhorter is the perfect example of a walking, breathing psychoanalytical case study. In fact, I would even argue that McWhorter’s bitingly abrasive book, Losing the Race: Self Sabotage in Black America, is rooted, not in what scholars deem “self-hatred”, but in something more detrimental to human nature…fear. During his childhood, McWhorter remains isolated from his Black peers because he fears tainting his pristine record. So, the professed linguist attends the “right” schools, excels in seven European languages, seeks tenure at a top notch institute of higher learning, and writes a book that validates his phenomenal achievements. Yet, upon careful scrutiny, one begins to deconstruct McWhorter’s concealed motivation. McWhorter’s book reveals more about his own psyche than it does about what he calls the “Black cultural legacy of victimology.” Therefore, his book should be titled, “Gaining Approval: One Black Man’s Guide to Self-Edification,” because he uplifts himself as the exception to the “Black rule” as a means of seeking White consent. McWhorter’s idea of self-worth is at odds with rationality. Although he fears being categorized in the Black cluster, McWhorter adopts a gross contradiction, stereotyping all Blacks as shiftless and unmotivated. His book is based solely on the observations of others and his isolated experiences, hardly warranting sound judgement. McWhorter is terrified by what Martinique born, French educated Frantz Fannon called “Negritude.” He cannot embrace Blackness because he fears what it intrinsically represents. McWhorter does not challenge negative stereotypes about Negritude because he is too far removed from his own “Blackness.” And this simple truth scares the hell out of him. So, he writes Losing the Race… to allay his fears. 
      John McWhorter riles me to opposition when he states that “African-Americans are held back by their own culture, not by racism.” He fails to realize that by its very nature, racism is a cultural legacy. Therefore, any culture that willingly dehumanizes Blacks relegates them to a lifetime of struggle. Exploiting data from grades and standardized tests scores, McWhorter also concludes that “African-American students are the worst performing in the nation.” However, he ignores the grossly low representation of African-American students taking the SATs in comparison to their White counterparts. In Denver, Colorado alone, Black students all across the board are more likely to incur minor zero tolerance infractions than graduate from high school. While McWhorter assigns Black failure to a lack of motivation and drive, I assign black achievement to multiple factors, all different for each individual. McWhorter further argues that the “black academic lag” will never change “until African Americans regain the seriousness of purpose and moral authority that helped lift them from slavery and segregation.” Slavery and segregation were overt methods used to subjugate blacks in the past. Now, in their place are Eurocentric ideals that teach the black child to hate himself/herself, thereby planting seeds of self-destruction. Yet, more and more Black students enroll in and graduate from universities every year, contributing positively to society. Herein lies McWhorter’s indifference. Instead, he states that “Affirmative Action has to go” because “it sows self-doubt among blacks and animosity among whites.” Nevertheless, Affirmative Action has the opposite effect. White complacency sits on a shaky plateau, as Whites are forced to realize that Blacks are just as talented as they. And black animosity lies at the top of an explosive volcano, for Blacks recognize that White women benefit more from Affirmative Action than any other minority group. 
      McWhorter’s experiences are important in the context of his life, but they should not be used as a basis for stereotyping an entire race. McWhorter chooses to dismiss a Black Stanford student who complains about racism because he does not believe a Stanford Professor could be overtly racist. He implies that he does not have the “black infection.” I’d like to know what McWhorter deems the “black inflection.” Afterall, he is the certified linguist. McWhorter works tirelessly to separate himself from the Black world, often forgetting a fundamental truth. His struggle to remain autonomous in a White world is not only a direct result of being born a Black man, but it is also a character builder. McWhorter cannot produce a book of value until he accepts his individuality and his Blackness as extensions of his humanity. Fear is his only obstacle. 

© 2001 Robtel Neajai Pailey

© 2001 Howard University.
(First Published in limited print edition, An Anthology of Verse and Prose, by the Composition for Honours Class, Howard University, Spring 2001. Professor E.R. Braithwaite)
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