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.

Confronting Ableist Language

Blogger Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg posts about her struggles confronting ableist language among social justice advocates:

People who are of non-normative intelligence or ability (narrowly defined) are simply considered less-than, so it’s the height of insult to call someone “stupid” or “a moron” or “a person with a low IQ.” 

Most people no longer use phrases like “that’s very white of you,” and most social justice advocates understand the problems with calling something “gay” as a term of distaste. It’s past time that we took seriously the calls to leave behind the non-technical use of “crazy”, “moron,” “idiot,” “low IQ,” “blind,” “lame,” “deaf,” and so on. It wouldn’t be that hard. People who are actually mentally disabled, lame, blind or deaf do not exist to offer us comparisons to people who see things in ways that we believe are wrong-headed and foolish.

Language, Allies and Privilege

Welcome to the Roots of Justice Blog.  Here we will be posting information about trainings and other events, resources, and news of interest to people who are engaged dismantling systems of oppression.  I’m Regina, and I’ll be blogging here with a couple of other people in the Roots of Justice collective. 

A bit about me: I was one of the co-founders of the Damascus Road Anti-Racism Training process.  I currently teach at a small Christian liberal arts college in northern Indiana.  


This week I am thinking about the language of anti-racism strategizing and organizing. As we near the middle of the semester, classroom readings and discussions are at the point where we have (hopefully) successfully gained a common understanding of the ways in which social identities are socially constructed. We are talking about the ways that this social construction of identities, and the meanings attached to them also structure inequality and oppression. We see how the system is broken, and the inevitable question, or perhaps, more accurately, we see how the system is structured to provide power, resources and tangible benefits to one group at the expense of others. We know how it happened, and how it keeps happening. How do we change it?

In the reading journals, on the discussion boards, and in the classroom there is a marked impatience at the prospect of creating long term, sustainable changes in oppressive structures and systems. What are the tools? How do we use them? For me, a primary tool has to be narrative. The way we tell the truth of what has happened, what is happening. We wrest the power of naming reality away from only a few voices. We name ourselves. And then we begin to speak into a new reality. Only in this way can we begin to live into one. This is, of course, messy work, especially when privileged people and marginalized people attempt to do this naming and reshaping together.

This week I’ve read or reread three different articles on the role of white allies in the task of dismantling structures that support and uphold white racist oppression. They illustrate the importance and limitations of the way we use language, the way we do naming, in the work of dismantling oppression. The first – Paul Kivel’s Guidelines for Being Strong White Allies. Whenever I read this, I’m nodding my head: Yes, notice how racism is denied, minimized, and justified. Yes, notice where the centers of power are. Yes, listen to people of color as we describe our experiences.

Not a day later, I come across Mia McKenzie’s excellent “No More Allies.” My head nods even more furiously as McKenzie illustrates the ways in which those who are supposed to be allies often recode and reinforce white supremacy by making it all about them:

It’s not supposed to be about you. It’s not supposed to be about your feelings. It’s not supposed to be a way of glorifying yourself at the expense of the folks you claim to be an ally to. It’s not supposed to be a performance. It’s supposed to be a way of living your life that doesn’t reinforce the same oppressive behaviors you’re claiming to be against.  (Mia McKenzie, Black Girl Dangerous, “No More Allies”)


I also read Andrea Smith’s “The Problem with Privilege” in which she examines the language of privilege and the practice of confessing one’s privilege. In the context of anti-racism training, these confessions, Smith asserts, allow participants to think themselves into a new subject position, but these individual confessions are just that – individual and on its own unable to respond to structural oppression. Once again, whiteness is the focus.

“Although the confessing of privilege is understood to be an anti-racist practice, it is ultimately a project premised on white supremacy. Thus, organizing and intellectual projects that are questioning these politics of privilege are shifting the question from what privileges does a particular subject have to what is the nature of the subject that claims to have privilege in the first place.”  Andrea Smith, Andrea 366, The Problem with Privilege

For those of us who work within religious spaces, the language of confession is particularly seductive. It can be very individual and private. It is the acknowledgement of our failures and our frailties. It is the claiming of a force more powerful than ourselves to hold us together.

Confession can feel (and is) significant, but it is one movement. Strategies for change must be collective, long term, and sustainable. Collectives that work together across boundaries of difference must be clear about naming themselves and identifying their respective positions and then go on live in the world they dream of creating. We must act as if the future we want to build is already here.

How do we fix it? Where are the tools? How do we use them? I still believe in the necessity of multiracial coalitions working together to dismantle oppressive structures. I am also more and more convinced of the necessity of being skilled at naming, and then de-centering whiteness.