May 16, 2013

People1 and People2

Here's a crazy scene: two guys outside a beachside shopping centre. One guy is harassing the other one for money. The guy being harassed announces he's a cop so the first guy gets spooked, runs off into the bush and subsequently strips off and goes into the water. He eventually gets caught and does what could only be described as the ultimate walk of shame: stark naked, trailing a cop, as you go off to be held in police custody.

Now, if you were someone who witnessed this scene, wouldn't it sound a bit odd to describe it like this:
"I was laughing to myself because it was the first time I have seen people naked."
Why say there were naked people, when there was only one? Why would an adult not have ever seen a person or people naked before, as the quote implies?

The answer lies in that the term people used here is a euphemism for Aboriginal person/people. What the above quote really means is "...it was the first time I have seen an Aboriginal person naked".  In this usage, 'people' is a euphemism resulting from political correctness and the anxiety that many non-Indigenous people feel regarding the way we refer to Aboriginal people. So even though the article that reported on this incident doesn't mention that they naked guy was Aboriginal, my forensic linguistic skills allow me to pretty confidently deduce that he was. (And no, not because I'm adhering to stereotypes of Aboriginal people that relate to high incarceration rates and their over-representation in the justice system).

It's not at all uncommon for non-Aboriginal people in the NT, who are (self)-conscious about how they talk about Aboriginal people, to use a generic word like 'people' in this odd way when they are actually referring specifically to Aboriginal people. I remember talking to a friend recently who said something like:
"People don't like to work in the afternoon".
Which 'people' was she talking about? Why not just say 'we'? From the context of the conversation it was clear that what was really meant was 'they', as in "they (people in remote community X) don't like to work in the afternoon (they prefer to work in the morning)". But without context, the utterance sounds rather bizarre.

'Otherness' is kinda funny when you
use it to take the piss out of yourself
I would actually go further and suggest that this euphemistic use of 'people' is applied more specifically to Aboriginal people from remote communities - those that non-Indigenous people commonly see as inherently different or "the other". But political correctness dictates to liberal-minded non-Indigenous people that labels that focus on the "otherness" of others are to be avoided. Like how liberal-minded folk also often try to avoid the pronoun 'them' or 'they', fearing that it connotes 'us and them' discourses that are commonly associated with racist discourses. So, to get around these issues, a non-descript label like "people" is used. It's a way for us to talk collectively about Aboriginal people in remote communities when we don't want to be seen to be labelling or dichotomising and don't want to evoke racist discourses of 'us and them'.

Which is kind of a good thing I suppose. Except that we sometimes end up sounding dumb. As in the examples above.

2 comments:

Perez said...

I have one counter-example where 'people' is used specifically for 'white people'. Years ago in Port Hedland there was a kind of informal mining/council slogan "We want to see generations of people living in the Pilbara". What was meant, of course, was generations of white people because clearly Aboriginal people have been there for countless generations. This implicit exclusion was remarked up at the time.
Back to your point, I remember hearing a white girl tell a story using the phrase, 'And then a mob of women came into the pub...'. Because she used 'mob' I knew that the women in the story were Aboriginal. My impression at the time was that she was using a salient feature of Aboriginal English to index a group without having to specify their race.

nginarra said...

Good counter example Perez. It made me remember a slogan for the Katheine RSL a few back: "where the good people meet" which I just took as being euphemistic and rather revolting.

I also hear 'mob' used in the way you describe, but I think that it's less remarkable than the use of 'people' I've described, because 'mob' is already a marked term that often connotes Aboriginality, or at connotes the English of parts of Australia with high propotions of Aboriginal people. 'People' on the other hand is much more neutral which is why I find this subtle euphemistic use so interesting.