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How does it feel like when a person is taken for someone that he’s not? Worse, what if most people fear a person because they mistake him as a bloodthirsty criminal just because of his skin color? This is essentially the theme of Brent Staple’s “Black Men and White Space” essay as he lamented about being discriminated by White people. He described in this essay the realization that he was perceived as frightening, particularly to Caucasians, merely because he was African American. Staples wrote that he was in graduate school at the University of Chicago when he first the fearful glances and avoidance of White pedestrians as he walked through the streets of Hyde Park: “I was indistinguishable from the muggers who occasionally seeped into the area from the surrounding ghetto”.
The purpose of this paper is to look into the arguments proposed by Staples by looking into the logical, ethical and emotional aspects of his piece. These three aspects are important because while logical and ethical appeals are often enough to convince on some issues, it is the emotional appeal that moves an audience to act on other issues. So, there needs to be a balance of these three appeals to make a position or argument acceptable.
In most rhetorical situations, a persuasive essay will be expected to base their proposals on sound reasoning and adequate proof. This is why a logical argument appeals to the mind, using evidence, reasons, and examples to support a claim or proposition. Logical appeals are based on facts, sound inferences, and working theories. Reliable evidence may include established truths, primary sources, statistics, expert opinion, or personal experience.
Although personal experience can be weak because it borders on how the person perceives an event that happened, personal stories of people who have been involved in an accident, a tragedy, or natural disaster can be powerful. By employing a detailed description of such event, an essay can have a strong emotional impact and would leverage a logical argument. Personal experience stories should be used to supplement logical evidence, not supplant it. The experience should be significant and have a definite, relevant point.
Staples relied on personal experience to prove his point in the essay “Black Men and White Space”. At the very start of his essay, he then recounted his first brush with discrimination with a dose of irony:
My first victim was a woman–white, well-dressed, probably in her late twenties. I came upon her late one evening on a deserted street in Hyde Park, a relatively affluent neighborhood in an otherwise mean, impoverished section of Chicago. As I swung onto the avenue behind her, there seemed to be a discreet, uninflammatory distance between us. Not so. She cast back a worried glance. To her, the youngish black man–a broad six feet two inches with a beard and billowing hair, both hands shoved into the pockets of a bulky military jacket-seemed menacingly close. After a few more quick glimpses, she picked up her pace and was soon running in earnest. Within seconds, she disappeared into a cross street (Staples).
It could be see in this first paragraph that his description about that incident was vivid and very detailed. Readers could almost feel vicariously that they are in the same location, where a 22 year old Black man is walking nonchalantly in Hyde Park, while the White woman noticed him approaching her. Thinking that he’s some sort of a mugger, the author described the actions of a scared woman as she rushed out of the scene to avoid the Black man like a plague. She was indeed nervous because she might have a pre-conceived thought about Black men who are always embroiled in crime.
Although negative stereotypes of African Americans are diverse and pervasive, Staples’ experience reflected the persistent and strongly held stereotype of African Americans as “dangerous criminals.” Worse, the stereotypes often escalate to violence against minorities lead to “race-based traumatic stress” that arises from exposure to racial discrimination, racial harassment, or discriminatory harassment. These are usually emotionally painful, sudden, and uncontrollable, where minorities would manifest anxiety, anger, rage, depression, compromised self-esteem, shame, and guilt. Readers can all see these emotions rambling in Staples’ essay as he recounted his experiences of being always mistaken as a criminal. Even though he’s already a professional journalist, he still is not being spared from the discriminating eyes of the White people around him. Thus, readers can commiserate with the numerous instances that Staples mentioned and by that he makes veritable logical arguments in his essay.
Ethical appeals are designed to strike a responsive chord in the minds of the readers, entreating them to do what is right, good, fair, and best. Ethics can be broadly defined as a set of moral values—principles of conduct for an individual, group, profession, or society. Sound ethics are essential for a well-constructed argument because it should be agreeable enough to most people because it is what is right.
To be ethical, an argument must respect the rights and needs of the audience. In other words, judging a person that he is a criminal just because of his skin color is wrong. This is why Staple’s arguments can catch the sentiments of most people who might have been discriminated once or many times in their lives. An ethical appeal requires a writer to first demonstrate comprehensive knowledge of the subject. The author has an ethical obligation to give the reader the whole truth, not just proof that will make the side of the argument seem convincing. In Staple’s essay, he complemented his stories with vivid descriptions and that is why readers could almost feel how awful it is to be mistaken as a criminal by the police, co-workers and even complete strangers.
However, there seems to be a problem in one ethical aspect of Staple’s essay. That is presenting the subject in an even-handed way. He did not propose differing viewpoints accurately of why the people acted such ways by discriminating him. But, all in all, Staple’s written voice still sounds reasonable, controlled, and concerned. He did not resort to making all those people who treated him “not right” as outright bad. Also, the style of writing is simple and conversational. This kind of style gives much credence to the essay because it gives us the impression that the writer is taking a personal stance in handling the issue. Although it can be biased, it is still agreeable to many people because it is really unfair to be treated that way.
Lastly, it is the emotional appeals that stir the feelings of readers with figurative language, connotation, and anecdote. Such appeals can be powerful, for they bypass the intellect. However, emotional appeals work best when used in moderation. They should also be ethical and it is not advisable to use an emotional appeal that gives the audience any misgivings or uneasiness.
Since Staples employed irony at the very start of his essay, he said his “first victim” when in fact he was also a victim of racial discrimination in that scenario. Using irony as a device, Staples avoided being the hackneyed ironic stance because he is not doing this for comic relief. In fact, he is convincing his readers that White people can sometimes be so paranoid to the point of hurting the feelings of a Black man who just happened to be there but White people avoid him because of their prejudice against his skin color.
Most emotional arguments often fall into the trap of hasty generalizations. This would mean that the essay may be perceived as careless, uninformed, biased, or manipulative if some fallacies are committed because of hasty generalizations. However, Staples fortunately did not resort to hasty generalizations as he carefully constructed his sentences to be sound neutral. Although he employed irony, it somewhat can induce an interesting emotion of pity towards those experiences he had encountered in Chicago and New York.
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What is admirable in the emotional aspect of Staples’ essay is that he is consistent in all of his paragraphs. Fact is that agreement sets the scene for mutual respect. This is because a point of agreement or common ground increases the chances that a proposition will receive thoughtful consideration from readers who disagree.
Ultimately, Staples succeeded in accomplishing all aspects of an effective persuasive essay as he discussed his unfortunate experiences of being discriminated. Facing the problem of racial discrimination is convoluted and multifaceted. Most people are unaware that they are committing racism, but they really are.
Worse, even law enforcers can be tough on minorities. The dedicated police officers and professional police only want to contribute in making communities safer. Some American policemen are even hard-working public servants who perform dangerous jobs. However, some have been accused to have committed numerous racially-related arrests. The perception that some police officers are engaging in racial profiling has created resentment and distrust among the police force, particularly in communities of color. Communities appreciate the benefits of community enforcers in reducing crime, but they also believe that truly effective crime prevention will only be achieved when police both protect their neighborhoods from crime and respect the civil liberties of all residents. When law enforcement practices are perceived to be biased, unfair, or disrespectful, communities of color are less willing to trust and confide in police officers, report crimes, participate in problem-solving activities, be witnesses at trials, or serve on juries.
With such writing of experiences like Staples, people will be more aware the next time they see a Black man. At present, racism is already frowned upon but some still commit it. Prejudice has been an age old issue and it has to be put into perspective. It all boils down to mutual respect for each one, then maybe the American communities will be a safer and better place to live in, despite of the diversity of its people.
Staples, Brent. “Black Men and White Space”. The Seagull Reader.