Language is a tool. It can make our worlds bigger or make them smaller. It can be used to create connection or to cause harm. It can affirm or it can disparage.
When it comes to how we describe marginalized aspects of ourselves or others—things that are perceived as “not normal” by the mainstream—language matters a whole lot, because how we talk or write about ourselves and each other can either affirm the value of diversity and difference, or demean people who are different from the idealized norm.
White supremacy is a system or social order that keeps power and resources consolidated among white elites, using an ideology (or way of understanding the world) that upholds whiteness—including white people, white cultural values, and white institutions—as being best or most “normal.”
Sometimes you want help understanding the meaning of a word, but you’re not sure whether you can trust a dictionary to give you a definition that is rooted in anti-oppression.
Most dictionaries were originally written by white, wealthy, educationally elite, straight, able-bodied men, which means normative assumptions and prejudices about how words should be used were written into them. And although dictionaries—like words themselves—have evolved, not all of their definitions give you the information you really need, or adapt quickly enough to provide you with fully current meanings of words.
Having a radical vocabulary can help you use language to unpack oppression, violence, and hate—and in the wake of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, this couldn’t be more essential. So here’s a list of the top words to know since the election.
White nationalism is a sector of the U.S. right-wing political sphere that is characterized by a white supremacist ideology.
As Chip Berlet explained, in a 1992 piece co-authored with Margaret Quigley, white nationalism “oscillates between brutish authoritarianism and vulgar fascism in service of white male supremacy” and white nationalists believe that “social problems are caused by uncivilized people of color, lower-class foreigners, and dual-loyalist Jews.”
Yesterday, The New York Timespublished the article “On Campus, Trump Fans Say They Need ‘Safe Spaces,'” by Anemona Hartocollis. Showcasing an appalling lack of responsible journalism, the piece attempted to present a “balanced” take on heightening tension on college campuses in the wake of the U.S. presidential election.
The term alt-right, short for “alternative right,” refers to a recently developed affiliation of far-right conservatives, organized largely by way of social media, whose primary common ground is white supremacy.
I follow the school of thought that the purpose of language conventions and standards is to help people communicate as effectively as possible across lines of difference, not that their purpose is to promote one “right” or “correct” way of speaking, writing, or being.
Holding “correctness” as sacred means valuing rules more than lives, homogeneity more than diversity, norms more than divergent experiences, and standards more than feelings. There is nothing sacred or inherently valuable about being “correct.” Here’s what’s sacred and valuable: respect, care, agency, empowerment, liberation.
So don’t ask yourself, “Am I being politically correct?”—rather, ask yourself, “Am I being respectful and caring toward the full range of human experience?”
One of the most common arguments by people who use the term “politically correct” is that people who say they are hurt by language are just being “oversensitive.”
Remember your friend whose boyfriend just died? Would you accuse your friend of being “oversensitive” at the mention of root beer floats, or sappy movies, or any number of other things that serve as a reminder of the loss? Most people wouldn’t, because your friend’s pain is culturally accepted as real and understandable.
Yet whenever someone’s pain goes against mainstream cultural norms, that’s when “oversensitive” comes out. Death is a pretty universal experience, but when it comes to things like sexism, racism, ableism, classism, and so on, not only is not everyone negatively impacted by these things, but by their very design some people suffer while others benefit—which creates an unconscious incentive to deny the pain experienced by people who are negatively impacted.
Imagine you have a friend whose boyfriend just died. Words are really powerful in this situation: they can help communicate your care and empathy for your friend, or they can hurt your friend and cause pain. If you were to say, for instance, that it was your friend’s fault that the boyfriend was dead, those words could have a deep impact—so deep that it might even drive your friend to suicide.
Far more minor word choices could be hurtful as well. For a long while after the tragedy, you would probably try to be sensitive and aware with your language so that you don’t unintentionally cause your friend further pain. You will probably choose not to gush about the guy you’re crushing out on right now. You may decide against inviting your friend to go see that new movie with a sappy love story in it. You might avoid certain topics because you know they will serve as a reminder of the loss.
You wouldn’t do these things because you’re trying to be “correct” or avoid “offending” your friend. You’d do these things because you care about your friend and you’re (hopefully) not a royal jerk.
Language isn’t correct or incorrect, it’s a spectrum from violent to liberatory. When I strive to use language in ways that are inclusive of the full diversity of human experience, it’s not about being correct or avoiding offense. It’s about creating the opportunity for perspectives that have historically been squelched to shine. It’s about empowerment, and agency, and collective care. It’s about liberation.
The idea that avoiding “offending” people is the primary goal of sensitive language is inherently minimizing—it automatically calls up the idea that being offended is a result of being either overcritical or oversensitive, nothing more. It also squarely puts the burden of how language is experienced on the people who are hearing or reading it. It says that if you are offended by particular language, it’s your fault, not the speaker or author’s.