With an increasing pressure to dismantle systemic racism this year, many advocates and social media activists emerged as allies of the Black Lives Matter movement. Yet, as a South Asian I realized just how complicit we all are in embodying, upholding, or colluding with White supremacy in our own consumption of racist language. We all don’t get the language of allyship fully right because our language inadvertently engages in microaggressions. Our words and expressions are the same as that of a racist bigot because they were born in the vernacular of White supremacy.
We are wholly complicit in the linguistic degradation of Black communities. Linguistic racism is a form of internalized racism, one that is propagated even by innocent tongues. Language perpetuates stereotypes and eventually violence.
There needs to be a fundamental shift in language if we are to be better allies:
- Probe color symbolism
Think of the words “black sheep”, “blackmail”, “blacklist”. Why does the most negative terminology have black associated with it? Why does White symbolize purity and positivity? When and where did this trend originate? Consider Martin Luther King Jr’s words:
“Somebody told a lie one day. They couched it in language. They made everything Black ugly and evil. Look in your dictionaries and see the synonyms of the word Black. It’s always something degrading and low and sinister. Look at the word White, it’s always something pure, high, and clean. Well, I want to get the language right tonight. I want to get the language so right that everyone here will cry out: ‘Yes, I’m Black, I’m proud of it. I’m Black and I’m beautiful!”
- Always capitalize the ‘B’ in “Black”
In a watershed moment in June 2020, the Associated Press (AP) style guide clarified that: “the lowercase black is a color, not a person.” But using the lowercase term, you are using skin color and race as a qualifier of identity. But a capitalized Black indicates a “shared sense of history, identity, and community among people who identify as Black, including those in the African diaspora and within Africa.”
- Consider “nation,” “language group” or “ethnicity” instead of “tribe.”
Ever wondered why history books only use “tribe” in relation to Africans or Indigenous people and never in the context of Europe? Terms such as “tribe” deny the geographical reality of Africa as a vast and expansive continent, less than 20% of which is wooded. It also simply reinstates the stereotype of the continent, as a massive jungle inhabited by “primitive”, “uncivilized,” “cannibalistic,” “pagan, “savage” peoples as described by early colonizers.
- Use “African” countries rather than using “Africa”
Africa reduces an entire continent of diverse cultures into a homogenous monolith as perceived by the colonizer. It is a continent home to various sovereign nations.
- Avoid using the N-word at all costs
Even if your favorite rap song uses it, know that is a racial slur when used by anyone not of Black descent. So why is it okay for Black communities to still use it? The Daily Tar Heel points out that: “N-word is a classic example of the reclaiming of racist language through the subversion of its power. Essentially, when Black communities reclaimed this word, they flipped it on its head and used it as a tool of camaraderie to the point where the word lost its power over them.”
- Watch out for terms that seem objective, but are actually racist
The colonizers and enslavers used blatantly racist terminology such as “savages”, “beasts” and “backward”. In contemporary times, to suit the modern context, these notions of inferiority have taken a more subtle and clinical form. Now terms such as “culturally deprived,” “economically disadvantaged” and “underdeveloped” are used which deceptively signal status without addressing the reason behind it. Burgess suggests that the term “culturally deprived” be replaced with “culturally dispossessed”. And that term “economically disadvantaged” should be replaced by “economically exploited”.
When discussing slavery, bear the following in mind:
- Use “enslaved” rather than “slaves”
Slavery was not an inherent human condition. It was something that people were subjected to. Whilst “slave” carries some social stigma, “enslaver” automatically transfers the shame onto the party enforcing it.
- Use “freedom fighter” rather than “rebel” or “fugitive”
In the context of slave narratives, the commonly used words of “rebel” or “fugitive” carry negative connotations. They imply a person trying to disturb the social order and status quo, instead of emphasizing the reason for the fight: freedom.
- Use “enslaver” as opposed to “master”
While the term master wields undertones of social superiority, it also transmits the aspirational values associated with it. The word “enslaver” does away with such social hierarchies built upon slavery and instead calls it out for what it really was.
- Use “Forced reproduction” instead of “slave breeder”
The word “breeder” which is used in the context of animals, is highly derogatory and dehumanized the enslaved people. Such language that robs humans of their humanity ultimately legitimizes atrocities committed against the group.
- Use “activists” instead of “abolitionists”
“Abolitionists” reduces the scope and profundity of the work to the termination of slavery. Whereas, “activists” extends it beyond the antebellum period right into the civil rights movement. It is simply a more all-encompassing term.
- Use “Transatlantic slave trade” as opposed to “slave trade”
Slavery is an ancient institution and has unfortunately been around through many civilizations. When referring to the African-American community’s daunting history of being enslaved, it is important to clarify it as the “transatlantic slave trade”.
- Use “chattel slavery” not just “slavery”
Many academics now insist on distinguishing slavery from chattel slavery. The broad spectrum of slavery also includes by extension, indentured servitude, which refers to a contract between two individuals where one person works not for money, but the passage to America. It is important to not conflate it with chattel slavery that was a harsher and perennial form of owning an individual and their offspring.
The racist language that has historically been used to control and condemn Black people, can be reclaimed to uplift and liberate the community and its voices. Remember, deconstructing language and reclaiming it is an act of resistance in itself. The predominant vocabulary might not be successful in fighting off racism. In Audrey Lorde’s words, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House”.
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