Language has evolved throughout history and will continue to do so far into the future.
As part of that evolution words get repurposed.
When people originally began using the word “run,’ they had no way of knowing it would eventually be used to describe the functionality of an engine, motor, or electrical appliance.
Or, that the word “gay,” which originally described being happy or carefree, would become used to indicate a person’s sexual attraction to partners of the same gender.
Sometimes, words take on a newer derogatory meaning.
During the HIV/AIDS crisis in the 1980s, “gay,” was repurposed again by many to describe something that was considered stupid, bad, or lame.
Sometimes, derogatory words are reclaimed to diminish their abusive usage.
This is seen with the incorporation of the word “gay” back into the mainstream acceptance of the LGBTQ community. People often use “LGBTQ” or “LGBTQ+” to mean everyone included in the “LGBTTTQQIAA” community. This includes Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, Transgenders, Transsexuals, Two-Spirited people, Queers, Intersexuals, Asexuals, and Allies, as well as those who identify as Pansexual, Agender, Gender Queer, Bigender, Gender Variant, and Pangender.
Additionally, there are instances in which aspects of popular culture change the meaning of a word. In the 1970s, the phrase “Bad ass” was used to describe something as exceptionally good or tough. The 1980s shortened this further to “Bad,” redefining the way the word was used for years.
Finally, we will see conflation and/or redefinition of terms to push a political agenda.
During the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, the American government managed a massive, and remarkably successful campaign to conflate all of the widely varied definitions of Socialism and the definition of Communism into one great “Anti-American” enemy in order to pave the way for the unleashing of Corporatism on the socially democratic Capitalism that made the United States the greatest and strongest economy the world had ever seen at that point with the strongest middle class that had ever existed. The success of this propaganda effort is still clear today as those fighting against progressive reform attempt to label those fighting for it as un-American, communists, or evil socialists!
After the Civil Rights movement successfully made overt racism unacceptable, this era also brought about a much more subtle and subversive form of racial oppression by those in power. Some attempted to repackage the language of their racism behind false patriotism, while others held out Freedom of Religion as a shield for their hatred. This ushered in an era of better veiled, but more extensive systemic racism in deceptive packaging.
These various forms of language evolution happen so regularly that each year the Oxford English Dictionary adds entries for approximately 1000 new words, along with roughly 4000 new definitions, to the compendium of our language.
Now, more than ever, due to the politicizing of many important words, it has become vital to ensure we use words that truly communicate the meaning we are attempting to convey.
The disconnect in the arguments presented against progress and understanding often come from an intentional deception behind the misuse of the words used to present those arguments.
We need to evaluate the more divisive words used in these discussions.
This requires differentiating between preferential bias, bigotry, racism, and racial oppression.
People may find themselves more attracted to a person of the same skin color or even a different color as sexual partners or friends. This is preferential bias. It does not necessarily mean they hate or dislike people that don’t match what they are naturally drawn to.
If, however, a person hates people of different color and treats them in a manner less respectful than other people because of their skin color, he is displaying overt bigotry.
When bigotry progresses to the use of derogatory language to dehumanize another, or an attempt to bring harm to another – physically, mentally, emotionally, financially, etc. — because of this arbitrary criterion, we have entered the realm of racism.
Combining racism with the power to create a more sweeping practice to dehumanize and/or harm entire communities creates institutionalized racial oppression and injustice.
Often those resisting the fight to reform institutionalized racial oppression and injustice will qualify their statements with some form of “I’m not racist, but…”
What they’re really saying is:
“I don’t call those people derogatory words, I don’t burn crosses in their yards, I don’t wear a hood to lynching parties, but I don’t want those people living in my neighborhood, or going to school with my kids, and if they’re being unconstitutionally beaten or killed by police it’s probably because they deserve it.”
Clearly, these people are racist, they have just learned not to be overt, by using coded language.
These same people like to toss around the word “Thug,” because the use of words such as the “N-word” make it impossible for their metaphorical white supremacy hood to mask their racist identity.
According to the Oxford English dictionary, the original definition of “thug” is:
“A member of an organization of robbers and assassins in India. Devotees of the goddess Kali, the Thugs waylaid and strangled their victims, usually travellers, in a ritually prescribed manner. They were suppressed by the British in the 1830s.”
The same source lists the correct current definition as:
“A violent person, especially a criminal.”
Yet, as John McWhorter, associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, explains; what people mean when they use it in context of talking about black people protesting injustice, or even Black people in general, is:
“A nominally polite way of using the N-word. Many people suspect it, and they are correct. When somebody talks about thugs ruining a place, it is almost impossible today that they are referring to somebody with blond hair. It is a sly way of saying there go those black people ruining things again.”
With this connotation, even community leaders and rich, successful businessmen become “disgusting, disrespectful thugs” if they dare to protest injustice, even peacefully.
Which brings us to “respect.”
Over the last year a passage has been traveling the internet that explains the misuse of this term quite well.
Sometimes people use “respect” to mean “treating someone like a person” and sometimes they use “respect” to mean “treating someone like an authority.”
And sometimes people who are used to being treated like an authority say “if you won’t respect me I won’t respect you” and they mean “if you won’t treat me like an authority I won’t treat you like a person.”
And they think they’re being fair but they aren’t, and it’s not okay.
Demanding respect while refusing to return it exposes the incredible sensitivity over the word privilege, especially regarding White Privilege.
Having privilege does not mean having a better life. It means having less barriers to a decent life than others. This privilege often manifests in ways that those benefiting don’t even realize is happening.
- A White person receives a job offer because the resume of a better qualified person of color was thrown in the trash because the hiring manager didn’t like the ethnic sounding name.
- A White person makes an offer on a house in a great school district, because a family of color wasn’t shown the house the previous week by a realtor attempting to maintain the “racial integrity” of the neighborhood and school.
- A White person gets stopped for running a stop sign and doesn’t have to immediately begin thinking about how they’re going to survive the next few minutes if their skin color is scary enough to make the officer “fear for their safety.”
Privilege is the absence of systemic obstacles created to provide a more difficult path to success for a specific group of people. If those obstacles are designed properly, people who are not affected by them, never notice them. We have spent centuries perfecting the design.
Look at how hard some states make it for specific communities to obtain the necessary ID to vote. Intentionally placing the offices which provide the necessary documentation to receive ID as far from each other and from the community as possible, making the hours of operation of such centers difficult for low income families with multiple jobs, and who rely on public transportation, to utilize. They do all this, however; without creating a fee for the actual ID that can be identified as a poll tax.
Just before a push for voter registration began for the 2016 primaries, Alabama closed more than thirty of their Driver’s License locations in Democratic districts to make voter registration of new low income Democratic Voters more difficult.
Wisconsin pulled a similar trick by eliminating polling centers forcing voters to travel to much harder to reach locations, with limited hours of availability, and longer waiting lines designed to deter elderly, infirm voters, as well as those with small children and no financial resources for child care while voting.
Privilege is a “trigger-issue” for many White people because it forces them to admit that successful Blacks managed to become more successful despite having to overcome greater obstacles.
Black families have long taught their children it’s necessary to work twice as hard as a White person from the same neighborhood to achieve half as much. While I am not sure the ratio still holds exactly true, the concept certainly has not been invalidated, yet.
This brings us to “equality.”
Those arguing against equality use an argument that defines equality as the same in all aspects. They claim those fighting for equality want everyone to drive the same fancy cars and live in the same fancy houses.
This is not what anyone fighting for equality is attempting to achieve.
We are fighting for:
Equality of Opportunity
All people regardless of color, gender, religion, sexuality, gender identity, ethnicity, or any other arbitrary qualifier should have the same opportunity, the same obstacles or lack of them to their success. Whether they achieve their own definition of success in life should be nothing more than a matter of individual drive, motivation, persistence and ability instead of systemic blocks to prevent them from becoming successful because those who have already obtained more power don’t approve of them.
Equality of Pay
The point isn’t that everyone should be paid the same amount of money despite their type of work, quality of work, or volume of work. Only, that two people doing the same type of work, the same volume of work, the same quantity of work should not be paid less because of any of those arbitrary criteria. Assuredly, those doing better work and/or more work, should not be paid less.
Equality of Justice
No one is saying that White people should be treated worse by police, or sentenced more harshly for the crimes they commit. The argument is that People of Color should not be treated any worse than those White people that commit the same violations, nor should they be sentenced any more harshly.
The race for equality is not over when the first person or team crosses the finish line, it is only complete when the last does.
Those bringing up the rear could get there sooner if everyone would help push and pull each other forward along the way.
Our society would be far better off if those that had already reached the finish would grab a vehicle and go back to start giving rides.
Sadly though, far too many reach the end and forget all about those they left behind, even the ones that helped them along the way.
Even worse, a significant number are intentionally laying traps to hinder those behind them. They don’t have to do it by tossing around dehumanizing slang. What they’re doing is far more evil.
We must stop them.
When it comes to racism, institutional oppression, and injustice, there are no innocent bystanders.
You’re either guilty, an enabler, a victim, or you’re actively working to put an end to it to help the victims.
If you choose to fight against these things in our society and help us progress forward to a truly inclusive and cooperative society, don’t allow your opponents to redefine and reframe your message.
Finally, we must understand the vast difference between access and inclusion.
A retail business may become handicap accessible by putting a wheel chair ramp outside their front door and rails in the bathroom stall. That doesn’t make the aisles inside wide enough or clear enough for a wheel chair to traverse, or the products reachable by someone confined to a wheelchair.
Telling People of Color they can use the bus, but they have to ride in specific seats because they’re not worthy of the better ones was similar.
This is what access without inclusion is telling people:
“You can use this service, we’ll let you inside, but everyone, especially you, should clearly understand you’re not really welcome here.”
I hope you’ll join me, and that this information helps, in the fight to build a more equal and inclusive society.
One where no one must give up their ethnic identity, religion, gender identity, sexuality, or find a way to “pass” just to be welcomed.
One where we openly acknowledge our commonalities and celebrate, instead of requiring forced denial, of our differences.
A society in which the success of one person or group does not require the manufactured failure of another.