"Racial Grammar" is Focus of Duke Professor's Talk

Eduardo Bonilla-Silva
Eduardo Bonilla-Silva

Race can come into play at any moment, as Dr. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva was reminded during his stint at Weight Watchers. A formula that determined he should lose 50 pounds, dropping his weight to 185 pounds, shocked him. At a height over six feet, with a fair amount of muscle, how could that amount of loss be necessary? “The scale made an assessment about my ideal weight based on presumably universal data,” Bonilla-Silva noted, but the data is not really universal—it is white. Such scales don’t consider the fact that American men with African ancestry are often literally “big boned,” likely to have 5-15 percent denser bones. Traditional weight categories become inapplicable.

This incident drove Bonilla-Silva to delve into the issue of race in everyday life. He determined that the discussion of weight is affected by a “racial grammar.” He explained that concept on October 6, in a lecture titled “The Invisible Weight of Whiteness: The Racial Grammar of Everyday Life in Contemporary America.” Bonilla-Silva, a professor of sociology at Duke University, appeared as the Latino/a Heritage Month keynote speaker, sponsored by the Days-Massolo Center.


Bonilla-Silva listed three elements of racial grammar before moving on to examples of its presence. He first noted that it provides rules for how to make race-related statements, but at an even deeper level it provides rules for how we understand or even feel about racial matters.


Bonilla-Silva then specified that these rules can only be acquired through social interaction, and that there are alternative grammars; a person can learn to feel differently about race despite the dominant racial grammar.


“Normative whiteness is still the not-so-hidden standard,” Bonilla-Silva explained. The current racial grammar makes people see white stories as universal, making them relevant to one’s own life and allowing the audience to feel sympathy for them. Bonilla-Silva showed examples of abducted women and the differences in how they are treated by the news media. The Nancy Grace Show, discussing the murder of Eve Carson, described her as “beautiful,” an adjective that consistently appears in news of the murders of white women and yet is never used in relation to the murder of a black or Latina woman. It is highly unlikely, Bonilla-Silva contended, that the story of the murder of a black or Latina woman would even appear in the news cycle.


Bonilla-Silva also noted the difference in racial grammar in discussing school shootings. Even between similar school shooting events, the news media provides more coverage for those occurring in white schools and the tone is different. The news stories try to evoke the sympathy of the audience. News coverage of a shooting at a black school is more likely to provoke debate, with questions like “Where are the parents?” and assumptions about drug use.

The narrative that drugs must be involved in black school shootings, Bonilla-Silva declared, does not fit with the reality of drug use in America.  The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports from 2006 show that white youths are almost four times as likely to have used methamphetamine, 3.5 times more likely to have used cocaine and twice as likely to be current users of cocaine. Similar statistics play out for other hard drugs.


Additionally, while the study showed that 10.1 percent of white male students brought a weapon to school in the past month, only 6.8 percent of black male students did. Bonilla-Silva contends that our racial grammar makes us believe that drugs and guns are natural elements in black schools and unusual in white schools. This racial grammar affects the level of sympathy news media uses in its coverage of school shootings.

“Like air pollution, is it hard to see clearly, yet it is out there poisoning us all,” Bonilla-Silva said of racial grammar. In contemporary America, racial grammar has become covert. Even surveys cannot reveal the extent of racism is America. “That data is becoming increasingly irrelevant because people know to give the socially desirable answers,” he said.

Bonilla-Silva cautions us against feigning “color-blindness,” which ultimately leads to ignorance on racial issues. Racial inequality cannot be solved by acting as though it does not exist. As Bonilla-Silva repeated throughout his presentation, “To go beyond race, we have to go through race.”

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