Language isn’t neutral or objective. It is a vessel of cultural stories, values, and norms. And in the United States, everyday language plays into the violent, foundational myth of this country’s origin story—Europeans “discovering” a virtually uninhabited wilderness and befriending the few primitive peoples who lived there—as well as other cultural myths and lies about Indigenous Peoples that are baked into U.S. culture and everyday life.
Be a radical copyeditor. When someone says “all lives matter,” engage with them (particularly if you are a white person, like me), and help them understand why saying this makes things worse, not better.
As many people have articulated over the seven years since the Black Lives Matter movement began, no one interrupts a breast cancer awareness event by yelling “all cancers matter,” or defaces “save the rainforest” bumper stickers with “all ecosystems matter,” or blocks a rescue crew from reaching a burning house because “all houses matter.”
Over the last year, a number of public figures have drawn praise and ire for referring to the facilities in which tens of thousands of people are being imprisoned by the United States without due process as concentration camps.
What has resulted is a “rhetorical cacophony regarding historical accuracy and proper terminology,” in the words of Lauren Duca of The Independent.
If, like me, you believe that language not only describes but creates reality, the primary question should not be “what is the correct definition of concentration camp and is that definition being accurately applied?” but rather “how am I morally obligated to describe and respond to what is happening at the U.S.-Mexico border?”
The five practices below are designed to help you use language to humanize in the face of dehumanization and practice liberation in the face of violence and hate. But first, some context.
Are There Limits to Self-Identity Language?
Q: In response to your piece about person-centered language, my mind goes to difficult situations where I’ve interacted with marginalized people who use/identify comfortably with terms I understand to be oppressive, e.g., a trans woman using the term “tranny.”
In another more privileged direction, I’ve interacted with people who don’t identify with the term “cis” despite being cis, and have heard members of oppressed groups say, “you don’t get to choose not to be cis.”
So I guess my internal query is, how far does the agency of one’s identity go? And does language that marginalizes an oppressed group supersede the desire of an individual in their expression of identity through language?
It has long been a pet peeve of mine that the word diverse is widely misused in the English language. Diverse is defined by Merriam-Webster (my favorite dictionary) as:
- differing from one another
- composed of distinct or unlike elements or qualities
Unfortunately, diverse gets misused to refer to people or things that differ not from one another, but from what is considered to be mainstream, dominant, or the cultural norm.
As white supremacists march in cities across the country this month, inciting terror and violence, a lot of people are calling such people “crazy,” “insane,” or “mentally ill.” Beyond the well-documented fact that white lawbreakers are often described by the media in markedly different ways from those who are people of color, calling racism a “mental illness” has got to stop. Here’s why.
What does it mean?
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.
What does it mean?
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 Times published 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.