Have you ever wondered why there’s virtually no media coverage of the economic concerns of the Black Working Class? Or the political concerns of Black Evangelicals? Where’s the focus groups and panel discussions giving vent to the concerns of Black Suburban soccer moms regarding CRT? Why hasn’t there ever been concerted effort to quickly pass legislation to safeguard Black children’s “uncomfortable” feelings about the traditional teaching of history, literature, science, religion, and virtually every other subject that treats them alternately as invisible and inferior? Conversely, where’s the consternation over the outrageous ratios of White on White crime? Why does it stretch our imaginations to even conceive the daily usage of this kind of vocabulary?
Could linguistic relativity have something to do with it?
Some notable Blacks from the past diagnosed it that way…
“Now we are engaged in a psychological struggle in this country. And that is whether or not black people have the right to use the words they want to use without white people giving their sanction to it.” ~Stokely Carmichael, 1966 UC Berkeley speech
“Even semantics have conspired to make that which is black seem ugly and degrading. In Roget’s Thesaurus there are 120 synonyms for blackness and at least sixty of them are offensive, as for example, blot, soot, grim, devil and foul. And there are some 134 synonyms for whiteness and all are favorable, expressed in such words as purity, cleanliness, chastity and innocence.” ~Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 1967, “Black Power Defined”
“Who speaks to me in my Mother Tongue damns me indeed! . . . The English Language – in which I cannot conceive myself as a black man without, at the same time debasing myself. . . [is] my enemy, with which to survive at all I must continually be at war.” ~Ossie Davis, 1967, “The English Language is my Enemy“
“Who taught you to hate the texture of your hair? Who taught you to hate the color of your skin? To such extent you bleach, to get like the white man. Who taught you to hate the shape of your nose and the shape of your lips? Who taught you to hate yourself from the top of your head to the soles of your feet? Who taught you to hate your own kind? Who taught you to hate the race that you belong to so much so that you don’t want to be around each other?” ~Malcolm X, 1962 Los Angeles speech at funeral service for Ronald Stokes
Social transformation through linguistic reconstruction?
Based on the above insights, I’d like to invite you to join an amateur experiment in linguistic relativity. Are you willing to explore the possibility of racial progress through linguistic as well as legal means? Black folks have some, but not much power to move the legal system. However, Black linguistic creativity is the most celebrated, imitated, and appropriated in the world. Our music and poetry is publicized, monetized, and globalized. What if we can leverage our cultural popularity to create structural change through our word choices?
What if our psychological struggle could spark a revolution by tweaking just a few words at a time and getting them to stick – through music, poetry, sitcoms, and regular workplace conversations? Could a few word changes cause enough mental inflammation in the minds of the linguistically privileged that they will demand social change just to get relief from their semantic-induced migraines and restore their ‘comfort’? In other words, if words with psychological and emotional connections to skin color were retooled to get under the skin of those not used to such linguistic pain, would they insist on reevaluating our overall use of language? And then apply that to other spheres? Here’s a few suggestions to get started with…
Blackmail whitemale – Why perpetuate the term “blackmail” when nobody’s scared of Black people mailing anything (except for ballots)? I know the word has Scottish roots, therefore could be argued to not have any relevance for Black inferiority. However, the origin of a term doesn’t necessarily disconnect it from its connotation. Every word has a denotative and a connotative meaning. Denotation is the literal, dictionary version of a word. Connotation refers the emotional response words ignite. The constant connotations of Black = bad in American society has wrested any relevance of Scottish origins from the everyday use of blackmail. Why not use “whitemale” instead, as it more accurately reflects who has the most power of coercion in America? Blackballed whiteballed – Isn’t it the white ball on the pool table that knocks all other balls around until they get back in their places? Let’s go straight to examples with this one. Why do some people argue that Colin Kaepernick was blackballed by NFL leadership, when that doesn’t reflect who’s in leadership? Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say Kap was whiteballed to teach everyone that any other misdeed a football player does can be excused or rehabbed, except bold, Black protest? Are you beginning to see the potential for language change to lead to social change? How about one more?
white black lie – How many people would take honesty much more seriously, if little lies are Black? And by inference, BIG lies are White? Who can argue that the biggest lies are NOT white? Wasn’t the US Capitol invaded after a “mob was fed lies“? Didn’t the person said to be “practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of the day” get away with it? The ability to tell the truth by accident and still have the unwavering support of a major political party is an amazing feat! Hundreds of real laws have been introduced to fight fake crimes while the real crime gets no time. Black folks in America can’t even fantasize about lying that bigly!
(What do you think of the starter list? Got recommendations? List them in the comment section.)
Democratization of definitions
Again, our experiment is to change perceptions by changing our word choices. What we want is to dispel the myth of race and to counteract the realities of racism. Racism is arbitrarily judging and exploiting others due to unscientific differences we assign to a combo of melanin, nose shape and size, and hair texture. Many of the words we use are arbitrary as well. We can choose to employ them differently.
Flipping the use of negative and positive connotations regarding black and white terms is a choice within our power. Ossie Davis referred to this as the “democratization of language.” This can be an exercise of participatory democracy that doesn’t depend upon court decisions, legislative bodies, executive orders, or electoral colleges. Whoever wants to participate simply elects to use revolutionized linguistics when they open their mouths or tickle their keyboards. The object is to awaken the sensibilities of the dominant American culture like Socrates’ parable of the gadfly stinging the complacent Athenian state.
Loving ourselves through linguistics
If we can alter our collective consciousness about black and white terms, then maybe we can help correct the distortions of White superiority and Black inferiority among people. The first distortion leads to idolatry of one group of God’s children, while the second leads to vandalism of another group of God’s image-bearers. If we can’t transform the former distortion, hopefully we can at least address the latter by not allowing language to reinforce self-hate.
If we’re going to populate a Beloved Community (whether in this world or the next) where we love our neighbors as ourselves, how can we neglect loving ourselves? Remember, Jesus didn’t say to love others instead of ourselves, but as ourselves. “Christ paid an infinite price for us, and according to the price paid He desires us to value ourselves.”
By Carl McRoy