The Surprising Thing You Use Every Day That Contributes To Structural Racism

by JR Thorpe
Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images News/Getty Images

If you were asked to define racist language, you'd probably go straight for slurs and insults, for an understandable reason. However, people have also known for a long time that English as it's currently spoken contributes a lot more to structural racism than you might think from casual conversation, and it matters immensely. Experts are increasingly turning their attention to how the structures within the English language can be racist or contribute to racist thinking, how that's holding English speakers back, and the ways in which it might lead to new understanding about inclusive language.

Racist assumptions in English usage have been the focus of a lot of attention over the past few years, because of the differing ways the media has treated Americans of different races. Hurricane Katrina provided an excellent example (in coverage of the aftermath, Black people tended to be described as "looting" supplies, while white people "found" theirs). But the issue has continued to turn up, most recently in the media coverage of Stephen Paddock, the white perpetrator of the deadliest mass shooting in recent American history as Las Vegas, described as a "lone wolf" and "quiet type" who "sent cookies to his mother," according to several major news outlets. Critics compared this narrative to the media's treatment of Black victims of police shootings, from Mike Brown to 12-year-old Tamir Rice, which often used racist stereotypes to create a negative impression of the victim. They also point out how the news cycle developed around the last most-deadly shooting in America, at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando in 2016, which was perpetrated by an American man of Middle Eastern descent allegedly allied to Islamic State. But racism in the English itself, according to scholars, isn't just about how we use it; it's also contained within the language itself. And that, they argue, is a massive barrier to racial equality in English-speaking places.

Racism In English, Explained

Where in the English language is racism embedded? Dr. Agwu Okali, a Harvard lawyer and a member of the UN's International Criminal Tribunal who helped to organize the war crimes trials in the Rwandan genocide, explains that embedded racism in language can be as simple as black and white — literally. "Everyone knows that in English bad things are 'black,' and 'black' things are not good (e.g. black spot, black day, and blackmail)," he tells Bustle. "By the same token, good things are 'white,' and 'white' things are not bad (white knight, white magic, white lie)."

This prejudice against darkness and the privileging of whiteness is spread through the entirety of English usage, and its influence is alarming. Sociologist Philip Q. Yang writes that it extends into a huge variety of idioms, from "white lie" and "white magic," to "blacklist", "black mood", "black market", or "black mark", and that this isn't an accident. "White often symbolizes purity, chastity, immaculacy, spotlessness, innocence, and virtue, while black represents evil, sin, wickedness, disgrace, and immorality," he writes in his 2000 book Ethnic Issues. Experts believe that this declaration of whiteness as supreme, "clean" and preferable isn't just poetic license; it affects the ways in which we interact with other people and can contribute to racial discrimination.

These linguistic habits stretch back a long way, and involve everything from moral standards to hygiene. The Oxford English Dictionary as far back as the fifteenth century defined "blackness" as unclean and ugly, and arguments against miscegenation throughout the centuries have often used the deeply harmful rhetoric of "racial hygiene" or "racial cleanliness."

"The unfortunate, and dangerous, thing," Okali tells Bustle, "is that this categorization is not only widespread throughout the language, but is systemic and systematically applied." There isn't an exception to the rule; there are very few ways in which blackness in English denotes a good or acceptable thing, or in which whiteness carries negative connotations. One of the only offensive examples, "white trash," isn't about whiteness itself, but about culture, class and socioeconomic status; "trash," in that example, is the modifier, not "white." And even the teaching of English itself is prone to linguistic racism. University of Washington English literature professor Suhanthie Motha, in her book Race, Empire, & English Language (2014), explains that "standard English" is seen to be superior to Jamaican, Hong Kong, or Nigerian English, which have deep and complex histories but are regarded as "inferior" patois — because they're spoken largely by non-white populations.

Why Embedded Linguistic Racism Is A Problem

Why is it a problem? Because, Okali says, it becomes impossible to escape connotations of racial hierarchy, for all races of English speakers. English, he tells Bustle, "creates a situation in which Black people effectively are held in perpetual psychological servitude." The language is particularly impactful on white people in this way, he says. "The white person, independent of himself or herself, is imbued from childhood with a mindset of negativity towards 'black' things, thus, wittingly or otherwise, negating the notion of equality of the races, which mindset he or she actually has to work hard to overcome."

Language isn't just something we use to communicate; it also may structure the ways in which we think, and how we process values and beliefs. And if the language we're using naturally, and regularly, associates blackness with inferiority and negativity, it's no wonder that Black lives don't seem to matter to some people nearly as much as white ones do.

Dr. Okali believes English must be de-racialized, but recognizes that the undertaking is gigantic because of the deeply embedded nature of racist ideas. "We are asking English speakers to give up a mindset and accompanying terminology that they have been weaned on, and is as integral to the language as almost any other idea or concept," he tells Bustle. People may also refuse to give up on sayings and usages they view as "harmless." Surely, they'll argue, saying something is a "knight on a white horse" or "black hat" doesn't contribute to the racial crisis in America? But English itself is volatile and political, as demonstrated by news stories of racists demanding that people "speak English" because they're in America. And at a time when the UN itself is condemning the "alarming" episodes of violence across the U.S., it's increasingly clear that structural racial divides remain deeply powerful, and that language is one of the ways they're perpetuated. Okali writes that as English becomes more prevalent worldwide, it's crucial that the racial ideologies within it be rooted out.

The importance of de-racializing English is, for experts like Okali and Yang, paramount for achieving racial justice, and it means that monitoring your own language use is extremely necessary. "As daunting and colossal as the task may be," Okali tells Bustle, "it is one that simply must be accomplished. For the Black person, and all who have backed him in his quest for liberation and equality, the stakes are too high, the journey has been too long and the experience too painful for him to now settle for the foot of the last hill that separates him from true liberation and full equality." Making language inclusive means examining everyday idioms in language, and being mindful of the connotations of what you say. Because the alternative — perpetuating racist mindsets through the use of language itself — is untenable.