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CEPPA Talk – Sara Bernstein (University of Notre Dame)

March 4 @ 4:00 pm - 5:30 pm

Title: Biased Evaluative Descriptions

Abstract: In 2008, Joseph Biden called Barack Obama “an African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.” Though intended as a compliment, such a description would not be applied to a non-African-American leader in the same context. Such biased evaluative descriptions, roughly, well-intended descriptions whose apparently positive surface meanings are inflected with implicit bias or benevolent discrimination, are the focus of this talk. After giving several different kinds of examples of biased evaluative descriptions, I distinguish them from similar linguistic concepts, including backhanded compliments, slurs, insults, epithets, pejoratives, and dog-whistles. I discuss some challenges to the distinctiveness and evaluability of BEDs, including intersectional social identities. I conclude by discussing the social significance and moral status of BEDs. Identifying BEDs is important for a variety of social contexts, from the very general and broad (political speeches) to the very particular and small (bias in academic hiring).