I don’t know about you but I prefer my racism as clear as summer skies, and as blatant as red and blue fireworks on a 4th of July night. Alas, as some would argue, we are in the age of covert, surreptitious racism. An age where although mobs do not yell out screaming, “Nigger! Nigger!” while lynching Black people to the jeer of White crowds, they might kill young Black children holding toys, then go through a certain kind of perverted mental and spiritual olympics to find justifications for it. Now coming from my educational background, language is and continues to be one of the most powerful tools for maintaining and perpetuating racism.
But because of the times, you might have to be a bit more oblivious about the way your language manifests racism because you know, you wouldn’t want people to flat-out call you a racist or something like that. Even though those who understand that language is never ahistorical, and that in a prejudiced society, it is invested in its hegemony of structure and systems, and will not fail to reflect said prejudice in the way it communicates. You’re probably using some of these words already but if you’re not, here is some verbiage (with explanations) for coded, and often casually racist vocabulary:
Oh yes, “thug.” The word you use when you’re not brave enough to say what you really mean – nigger. (Believe it or not, spelling the word with an “a” or saying “the n word” doesn’t change much in its usage as a rhetorical device.) Remember how the media insisted that Richard Sherman was a thug because he got a little bit “too rowdy after a game?” Well, it’s that sort of behavior thugs are made of. It’s basically any usually Black or Brown body, usually male, that you criminalize when they fail to meet up to what you deem as “appropriate” behavior.
The thing about this word is that if you use it aptly, you’re doing doubly duty of being both racist and classist. Because really ghetto is supposed to represent symbols, icons, material, and anything associated with being both a person of color, and poor. So for example, if someone is yelling and screaming at odd hours of the night, perhaps fighting with their significant other, you could say they’re being incredibly rude or that the situation is troubling. Or to really get behind racism’s ideal, you might want to say they’re being “ghetto” or the situation is “ghetto.” Make sense?
Ah, ratchet. No doubt a new favourite for many people to explain behavior often associated with Black American women, also in the working class or poor, that depicts representations of “oversexualization” and/or “crass behavior.” So your friend who maybe was screaming a little too loudly while twerking on the guy she just met at a bar? You may deem her “ratchet” for said behavior if you want to be sure to let your (intersectional) sexism and racism slide idly by without too many noticing.
4. Inner City
Usually said in reference to Black and Brown people who live in the city, who epitomize those who just have not worked hard enough for the American dream. And instead, spend their days, thinking of crimes to commit and finding ways to disrupt the good, old-fashioned, harmless values of (White) America that never, ever hurt anyone who just followed them. But you don’t want people to point out your prejudices when you say, “Black and Brown kids,” so instead say, “inner city kids” because really, people don’t know how to figure things out anyway. (Also see: urban. Which is often used in lieu of “inner city” but is more all-encompassing. But I figured many of you by now, have figured that one out.)
As the media and your likely limited experiences have shown, PoCs generally don’t know how to “speak correctly.” Never mind the fact, that there are linguistic variations of any language, that are subject to space and time, and notions of “speaking correctly” are not universal but rather subject to said space and time, you may still come across a PoC who “speaks so well.” You know, “eloquently.” But you can’t go around telling people that they speak “articulately for a PoC,” so drop the fact that they’re a PoC and “compliment” them by pointing out how articulately they speak. I mean good for them, they rose above your expectations.
As we all know, it’s not just birds and plants that don’t appear in the spaces that we are familiar with, that are exotic. It’s people who are different from us by virtue of something as null and void as a different hair and skin colour from people we know. (See: WASPS) I mean, being exotic is kind of a compliment anyway, right? Why would anyone at all be offended by this? You’re not being racist really at this point, you’re practically stunned with their appearance and existence as a human. And when you get to know their culture, it might be just as exotic as them, right?! So many new and different things to you, regardless of how long their particular ethnic background has been around in human civilization.
Now ethnic is a tricky one because you have to use it in a specific context. For example, because everyone is technically from a particular ethnicity, you have to pretty much ignore that this is true for White people. Only use ethnic when referring to PoCs, yes, even if you are a PoC yourself. And don’t feel the need to even bother specifying a person’s ethnicity or the subject matter at hand. For example, when you see Jamaican food, no need to point out that it’s Jamaican, but rather note that “it’s ethnic.” Or if you see someone who may appear as racially ambiguous to you, tell those around you that they look, “ethnic.” See, that’s how you ensure that everything and everyone non-White is “ethnic.”
8. “I don’t see colour.”
This is 2015 and some of our eyes have evolved to the point where some of us have altogether stopped seeing the skin colour people have. Even though this is not actually the case, use this phrase as a way of negating experiences that may be limited to particular bodies of particular skin colours, while also refusing to see yourself complicit in perpetuating racism, and therefore needing to acknowledge it, and maybe even having to change because of it. This is truly incredible work, getting to subliminally perform racism while distancing yourself from it at the same time.
9. “Acting Black” or “Acting White”
As we all know, race, and especially when it comes to the experiences of PoCs can be worn like a costume for others. Notwithstanding this usual black-white binary, it’s important that you codify Blackness into limited constructs, often appropriated as potentially causing deviant behavior in culture or manner – “acting Black.” But not only that, when you see a PoC that is living up to standards that have been deemed appropriate and worthy, and imagined as exclusive and desirable, be sure to perceive them as “acting White.”
Sketchy is one of my personal favourite words because really, its nuance is often perceived as free from known historical implications. And do ignore those who find a way to show you otherwise. Instead, be sure to use this word when you feel unsafe or uncertain of a place or perhaps an object because of its association with Black and Brown people. Never mind what goes on elsewhere, it’s those inner cities and ghettos that really foster all those sketchy neighborhoods we should all try to avoid, right? But again, we’re trying to be covert here. No need to make waves by being direct.
11. “Playing the race card”
If a PoC points out a specific situation that may be deemed racist based on their experience, and you disagree because you know better about their experiences than they do, insist and point out that they are in fact, “playing the race card.” Or you may sometimes use, “race-baiting” instead of “playing the race card.” It’s pretty awful how people use their race to get so much in life, you know? And then even have the audacity to point out the negligence and privilege of others. Always be on guard, because PoCs and their race card and race baits. They love them even more than they love all their “ethnic” foods.
12. “…But where are you really from?”
If someone tells you where they’re from, but obviously because of their non-Whiteness they can’t really be from that place, you should definitely insist on pointing out how much of an other they will always be, by demanding to know where they are really from. After all, especially in multicultural societies and communities, everybody knows that nations are actually real, definite places and not imaginations of community. What did Stuart Hall know anyway?
13. “Illegal alien”
As we all know, (and this one is not specific to the United States, but given that is the context which I understand this term the best…) America was “won” fair and square. Contrary to all that propaganda, it wasn’t built on the backs of Native American genocide, Black enslavement, cheap labor of immigrants (who may or may not have been here prior to it’s inception as a country). No, we are living the dreams of Manifest Destiny baby. And because we can’t outright talk about all those Mexican people (see: Latin American but you know, same difference right? lol) who are coming here to take all the jobs and steal the harvest (see: billions of national debt) of those who worked so hard for it, let’s just call them illegal aliens so no one will notice, okay?
Now the thing about language is that it can sneak upon us when we’re not paying attention. Of course when someone points out and explains how these words are situated in a prejudiced society that seeks to retain the imagination of non-Whites as “others,” they’re probably just being too sensitive. I mean why would anyone actually take it for granted that people who understand how racism survives in a “colorblind,” modern society and who often find themselves on its receiving end, understand and are able to articulate language as a tool of maintaining racism, and one that is dynamic and resilient? Besides that, who is anyone to police the language that you use? Just because you know better, it doesn’t mean you actually have to do better, does it?