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Rules of Discourse



To the editors.

Jeff Bloom's logic in his letter "Stereotyping Honkies" (Chicago Reader, September 16, 1988) is based upon the assumption that the rules of discourse governing generalizations are culturally the same for blacks as they are for whites. They are not. As Bloom illustrates with almost all his examples, he takes black generalizations about "white folks" to be categorical, that is, to apply to all whites (therefore also himself, as a white person). Black generalizations, however, are not intended to be understood categorically, but as generally true, that is, as not intending to include everyone who might fit the category. Thus, under black discourse rules, generalizations about "white folks" need only be true of "most" or "many" whites to be valid as a generalization.

There are also other differences. The rules of white mainstream discourse establish that the person who makes the generalization is not only responsible for the validity of the characterization: its truth as a general statement, but for all persons (targets) to whom the characterization, or accusation in this case, applies. As noted above, for whites, this means all those who fit the category. Consequently, those whites who feel themselves falsely accused, as Bloom did, petition those making the generalization, in this case, blacks, for redress.

Black discourse rules, however, while holding the maker of the generalization responsible for its general validity (as whites do, with the proviso, as noted above, that blacks do not mean all), hold the receivers of the accusation responsible for determining its validity to themselves specifically. The black rule here is, "if the shoe fits wear it." In Barbados, it is, "Whoever the cap fit, pull the string" (it is a broadly Afro-American pattern).

Also relevant is what blacks make of those who would protest their innocence (as Bloom does) claiming to have been falsely accused. Blacks have a proverb, "If you throw a stone in a pack of dogs, the one that yelps is the one that got hit." Following the cultural logic that only the truth has the capacity to produce a defensive response, blacks regard those who would protest their innocence to a general statement as incriminating themselves (remember according to this logic: the person making the statement did not intend it to apply to everyone, did not specifically name the person who protested that they had been falsely accused, and holds the receiver not the accuser responsible for its specific application). Consequently, blacks who make generalizations do not accept the role of granting dispensation for having wrongly hit a target that individual whites, in petitioning for redress, would have them assume.

In sum, while it is possible within white mainstream culture to feel oneself accused without feeling guilty, within black culture (as noted above), to feel yourself accused is tantamount to acknowledging guilt (that one has, in effect, been "hit"). All of this is laid out with appropriate examples in the section "Signs of Guilt and Innocence" in the chapter "Truth and Consequences" of my Black and White Styles in Conflict. Notwithstanding the fairly widespread success and use of that book, as Mr. Bloom's letter shows, it has not dented much the kinds of misunderstandings that whites and blacks still regularly make of each other's different speech behavior and overall different cultural styles.

Thomas Kochman

University of Illinois at Chicago

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