Linguistic Racism

ImageOn Saturday I was shopping at the farmer’s market, and for the entertainment of children, a magician was putting on a brief show. During the classic Cup Trick, he had everyone count the cups – “one, two, three” – and then in Spanish, French, and German. Then, “In Japanese, ….” and he added three nonsense words that ended in “-i” to imitate Japanese – turning it into a joke language. The audience laughs, knowing this isn’t really how you count in Japanese, but none of us know know Japanese anyway so… ha ha. Rather than insider knowledge, this is insider ignorance: a chance for people from the dominant culture to bond over shared ignorance of another culture.

Lingistic Racism describes when language is used to empower white dominant culture over against another racial group. In a more nuanced definition, from the wikipedia entry on Linguistic Discrimination (broader than Linguistic Racism):

In the mid-1980s, Linguist Tove Skutnabb-Kangas, captured this idea of discrimination based on language as the concept of linguicism. Kangas defined linguicism as the “ideologies and structures which are used to legitimate, effectuate, and reproduce unequal division of power and resources (both material and non-material) between groups which are defined on the basis of language.” (my emphasis)

Linguistic racism takes a lot of forms, such as mocking another language (see the children’s picture books in the Skippy-Jon Jones series) or the way non-native English speakers pronounce English words (such as an inability to pronounce “L”). The connotations of certain English words (“white” as pure and good; “black” as evil and bad) also fall into linguistic racism. The classic, but dated, article by Robert B. Moore, Racism in the English Language, describes many examples of how racism is encoded into our language. Here are his categories:

Obvious Bigotry – Racist slurs, which I won’t repeat here, and using terms to demean, such as calling a grown Black man “boy.”

Color Symbolism – White = Good, etc.

Ethnocentrism – Also could use the term, white racial framing. There is a huge difference between saying “The family owned thirty slaves” and “The family enslaved thirty Africans.”

Passive Tense – “The continental railroad was built” effectively erases the labor of thousands of Chinese immigrants, and countless others.

Political Terminology – “Developing countries” or “economically exploited countries”? 

Loaded Words – Columbus “discovered” North America? “Massacre” or “victory in defense of land”? “Village” and “hut” or “town” and “house.” And after a natural disaster, “looting a store” vs. “finding bread and clean water.”

Qualifying Adjectives – “Articulate” is the classic example. People from the dominant culture are assumed to articulate, so it isn’t mentioned.

Speaking English – Portraying people of other races and cultures as unable to speak English “properly” and therefore as less intelligent or capable: Broken English, mispronunciation, stereotypical phrases (“many moons,” “How!”)

Linguistic racism isn’t just words that hurt feelings. It is a technique that the dominant group uses to enforce the racial hierarchy in order to maintain access and control over resources and institutions.

15 thoughts on “Linguistic Racism”

  1. A resounding yes to all this, and I’ll add my personal soap box about lumping people into groups identified by a single characteristic that sets them up as “other” instead of people, i.e., the rich, the poor, the whites, the blacks. Because of the field I work in, my least/most favorite is the homeless. If we all, especially the media, made an effort to rephrase groups to rich people, poor people, white people, black people, homeless people, we would all be reminded of our common humanity, the outcome of which I would hope is treating each other with dignity.

  2. In teaching we have talked about “person first” terminology. For example, Jane has autism, or students with disabilities, students with visual impairments, etc. The point is to always say the person first, I think that could apply to the comment above.

    1. Be careful with that, educationmajor. Many autistics – many, many, MANY autistics – actively hate person first language, at least as far as it applies to autism.

      We find the reasoning that “if you don’t put the person first, you’ll forget there’s a person” to be offensive, along with the core assumption that autism is just a little, unimportant aspect of who we are. We also find that the use of person first language can be stigmatizing. People rarely use it for positive or neutral traits, after all. You wouldn’t refer to “A person who has homosexuality” or “The woman with beauty”, would you?

      It is not just autistics who have problems with person first language. Deaf individuals who consider themselves members of Deaf culture also often dislike it, and the National Federation of the Blind has some pretty strong words to say about it as well, and has never rescinded its resolution against it.

      The important thing is to refer to people as they wish to be referred to. If you are saying respectful things, a minor gaffe where you don’t use their preferred terminology is forgivable. If you’re not being respectful, then the words you use are hardly the important thing. And it’s NEVER okay to respond to an autistic (or Deaf, or blind) person telling them “I think you mean “person with autism (or whatever)”, as has happened to me more times than I can count. Seriously, that’s not cool.

      1. Just as many of us prefer not to be reduced to a single trait we possess. Sorry Conoly, but this kind of language doesn’t have a one size fits all solution. I may not refer to a person who has homosexuality, but if it’s pertinent to the conversation, I do use phrases such as “a person with a limp,” or “a person with a speech impediment.”

        By all means, choose the phrase your comfortable with.. and consider those who try to correct you as being well meaning, but impolite. But please don’t speak on behalf of all, or even most of us on the spectrum. User experience will vary, and in my circles, it’s more polite to recognize autism as something that affects us.. not as something that defines us.

        I agree with you though, in that the terminology a person uses is secondary to the tone of what they’re saying. Words only really have meaning in context and offensive terms can be well-meaning just as polite words can be used as weapons.

      2. Samantha, although I can understand your point of view, I don’t agree with it. When people refer to me as an American or a New Yorker, I don’t think they are “reducing” me, any more than I do when I say that I am a woman or an atheist or lefthanded or an adult or, yes, autistic – and yet these are all “single traits that I possess”. And in the ranking of importance, I’ll put “autistic” above “woman”, even though not only does nobody hesitate before using that label, they get darn pissy if you don’t give it to them! Can’t even sign up at many websites without disclosing your gender, like it should matter to them!

        But they’re not little and unimportant traits either, not even the being-a-woman part. And even the ones that really are little and unimportant, like “I’m a brunette” or “I’m nearsighted”, in the context where they’re important to bring up, I don’t feel it’s reducing me in any way to bring them up in a normal, idiomatic fashion.

        Autism doesn’t define me, but in the kaleidoscope of “things about me” it’s a pretty big piece of the picture. And even if it wasn’t, I find the use of “have autism” to be more stigmatizing.

        But no, I don’t go wantonly correcting people who just happen to use it in conversation, and certainly not people who use it to refer to themselves. Can’t correct a self-description. That’s so rude. I just really, really dislike the idea some people have that person first language is God’s gift to human discourse. It’s just… not.

        Now that I’ve typed this whole long reply I re-read your comment and realize I have something else to say. Anybody who thinks they are correcting somebody on their self-identification in a “well-meaning” way is a jerkface. Somebody telling an autistic person “I think you mean person with autism” isn’t being well-meaning, they’re being patronizing. It’s impolite and derailing even if you don’t know, but if you do – sheesh. I don’t have the time or energy to deal with being NT-splained every time I open my mouth or type up a comment.

    1. I do not know how to count in Japanese, but given the context and the implied humor of the magician’s act, I suspected that he did not know how to count in Japanese either. When I got home, I Googled Japanese number-words and confirmed that what the magician said was not Japanese.

      1. The reason I ask is because I know how to count in Japanese and your description of “words that end in “i”” describes 3 of the first 4 Japanese numbers (in their anglicized spellings).

        1. Yes. That’s what makes mocking a language work: just enough knowledge of some common linguistic forms to be able to imitate and have the audience recognize it. Often goes along with a stereotyped accent.

  3. “The continental railroad was built” effectively erases the labor of thousands of Chinese immigrants, and countless others.
    Saying “The continental railroad was built by thousands of Chinese and Irish immigrants as well as veterans of the Union Army and Confederate Army” does what now? Who erased the labour of multiple ethnic groups?

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