I am a white woman who grew up not only with white privilege but with economic privilege as well. And until fairly recently, I’ve also been something of a curmudgeon when it comes to language usage and grammar.
That’s not a very good combination.
I’ve been gradually getting on board with the concept that language is evolving and context-dependent. That language is a living thing that needs to reflect the culture it expresses. I’ve been stubborn about that acceptance for a long time. I come from a country that takes language very seriously (we legislate it, for heaven’s sake!) and I’m also a rule-follower… so I naturally want everybody else to do the same. I resisted accepting “they” as a singular. I’m still struggling with “alright” becoming as acceptable as the (to my mind “correct”) construct of “all right.” And don’t get me started on the absurdity of French: back in 2016 when the Académie decided to officially change the spelling of week-end to weekend, there was a significant wave of protest, the irony of which (it is, after all, an English word) not being apparent to protesters.
All that to say that I’ve slowly moved to the side of evolution. And I’m feeling, in fact, that we’re not evolving quickly enough. Language may reflect society, but it also gives it parameters, frames its thoughts and concepts, and defines what it believes — what it will and will not accept.
White privilege, however overt or covert, is at the root of our society and also our language, and that’s brought us to the present norm: identifying people as white unless directed otherwise. I write novels in which — up until this year — I have called out the race and/or ethnicity of some characters while allowing my readers to assume, as I do, that anytime a race was not specified, the person was white. White was the norm. White was expected. Did I consider myself a racist? Of course not. Was the language I used racist?
I’m starting to think that the answer to that is — yes.
Racist ideas are much more ubiquitous in our society than are avowed, self-identified racists. And writers could be more honest and transparent — and more courageous — about identifying racist ideas in our culture, rather than being complicit in them.
Writers have a collective responsibility to write what comes next with accuracy, beginning with saying what we mean, taking the risk of sometimes getting it wrong, apologizing when we do, and doing better next time. Language is fluid; it’s not putting our choices in stone—we are. As a writer, I must understand and take responsibility for the language choices I make.
Language is a living thing. We can feel it changing. Parts of it become old: they drop off and are forgotten. New pieces bud out, spread into leaves, and become big branches, proliferating. (Gilbert Highet)
I didn’t grow up in the American public school system, but even as an outsider I can make some observations about it, and the first is that there’s obvious implicit racism that for decades everyone has just accepted. Ask anyone to tell you the first date in history they remember learning: “In fourteen-hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” What happened in 1492? “Christopher Columbus discovered America.” Oh, did he? It’s my understanding there were people here already, people who would eventually be driven from their sacred lands and forced to surrender their native tongue and customs by Columbus and the many, many Europeans who followed him. How did the “fact” of Columbus’ voyage become more important than the “facts” surrounding these momentous events in the history of tribal nations in what came to be called North America? It suited the culture, which didn’t want to ask itself uncomfortable questions about how the dominant group — white people — came to be here.
At some point, we have to question the price other people pay for keeping white people in their comfort zone.
The old rules are about using language to demonstrate intellectual superiority, and the new rules are about using language to create connection between people. (Gretchen McCulloch)
That connection is only going to happen when writers from the dominant group (in this case, white people) make the effort to imagine what effect their words will have on everyone — not just those who think and look and talk like them. When they take the time to ask themselves whether certain terms make a judgment, or are likely to offend. When they enlarge their vision of who their audience is, and embrace the differences within that audience.
It’s also only going to happen when we realize that it’s not intent that matters, it’s impact. Just saying, “that wasn’t what I meant,” isn’t going to cut it anymore. If your words hurt someone, belittle someone, abuse someone, that’s on you. Take responsibility for what you’re writing.
Colorblindness is a component to racism I never gave much thought to but have come to realize is significantly damaging: it has the unintended effects of both invalidating fundamental aspects of someone’s identity (for example, “I don’t even see you as…”) and ignoring the factors that created unequal pain and suffering — and unequal privilege. Yes, of course it’s important to find our common humanity. But our challenges, our histories, and our accomplishments are fundamental parts of who we are, and we feel validated when they’re recognized. It’s not enough for me to write about a woman without giving her some identity, some context. People aren’t generic. A Black woman will come to be a character in my novel by a very different route from a white woman. I need to honor that by identifying them both equally.
I don’t use the passive tense a lot in my books; it’s not wholly appropriate for a mystery novel. But I read a lot, and I’m starting to understand how wretched a tool it is, how much it shifts all responsibility away from the dominant character or the storyteller. (Perhaps I’ll spearhead a movement to free our speech from the passive construct!) Look at it historically and you’ll see what I mean. A white-centric text might read that European immigrants came to the United States seeking a better life and expanded opportunities, but then will note that “slaves were brought to America.” No: slave traders brought human beings to America to sell and use. Accept your damned responsibility. In the same way, the continental railroad “was built,” not “Chinese laborers suffered and died while building the railroad for the use of wealthy white entrepreneurs.” Own your damned oppression.
Abolish the passive construct. Now. This is a really good time to review what we’re saying and how we’re saying it, and if you’re a writer, then this is your call. This is your responsibility. Storytellers inspire, educate, and guide the world. We need to start taking that role seriously.
Linguistic racism isn’t just words that hurt feelings. It’s a technique the dominant group uses to enforce racial hierarchy to maintain access and control over resources and institutions. I’ve been reading a lot by and about Kamilah Majied, a social work professor at California State University at Monterey Bay, and she uses a phrase I am coming to love. “Step into the truth,” she invites her students. “Step into the truth.”
There are some other things writers can do. We can use terms that focus on people rather than on the method of categorization; for example, “enslaved peoples” rather than “slaves.” There is a huge difference between saying “The family owned thirty slaves” and “The family enslaved thirty Africans” (remember that passive construct? Abolish it!). We can be specific, and honor the people we’re actually writing about, by saying, for example, “Dominicans,” rather than “Hispanics.”
To recognize the racism inherent in language is an important first step. Consciousness of its influence on our perceptions can help negate much of that influence. We may not be able to change the language itself overnight, but what we can change is our usage of the language. We can avoid using words that degrade people. We can make a conscious effort to use language that reflects respect, dignity, appropriateness, and justice.
Step into the truth.