Linguistic Racism

ImageOn Saturday I was shopping at the farmer’s market, and for the entertainment of children, a magician was putting on a brief show. During the classic Cup Trick, he had everyone count the cups – “one, two, three” – and then in Spanish, French, and German. Then, “In Japanese, ….” and he added three nonsense words that ended in “-i” to imitate Japanese – turning it into a joke language. The audience laughs, knowing this isn’t really how you count in Japanese, but none of us know know Japanese anyway so… ha ha. Rather than insider knowledge, this is insider ignorance: a chance for people from the dominant culture to bond over shared ignorance of another culture.

Lingistic Racism describes when language is used to empower white dominant culture over against another racial group. In a more nuanced definition, from the wikipedia entry on Linguistic Discrimination (broader than Linguistic Racism):

In the mid-1980s, Linguist Tove Skutnabb-Kangas, captured this idea of discrimination based on language as the concept of linguicism. Kangas defined linguicism as the “ideologies and structures which are used to legitimate, effectuate, and reproduce unequal division of power and resources (both material and non-material) between groups which are defined on the basis of language.” (my emphasis)

Linguistic racism takes a lot of forms, such as mocking another language (see the children’s picture books in the Skippy-Jon Jones series) or the way non-native English speakers pronounce English words (such as an inability to pronounce “L”). The connotations of certain English words (“white” as pure and good; “black” as evil and bad) also fall into linguistic racism. The classic, but dated, article by Robert B. Moore, Racism in the English Language, describes many examples of how racism is encoded into our language. Here are his categories:

Obvious Bigotry – Racist slurs, which I won’t repeat here, and using terms to demean, such as calling a grown Black man “boy.”

Color Symbolism – White = Good, etc.

Ethnocentrism – Also could use the term, white racial framing. There is a huge difference between saying “The family owned thirty slaves” and “The family enslaved thirty Africans.”

Passive Tense – “The continental railroad was built” effectively erases the labor of thousands of Chinese immigrants, and countless others.

Political Terminology – “Developing countries” or “economically exploited countries”? 

Loaded Words – Columbus “discovered” North America? “Massacre” or “victory in defense of land”? “Village” and “hut” or “town” and “house.” And after a natural disaster, “looting a store” vs. “finding bread and clean water.”

Qualifying Adjectives – “Articulate” is the classic example. People from the dominant culture are assumed to articulate, so it isn’t mentioned.

Speaking English – Portraying people of other races and cultures as unable to speak English “properly” and therefore as less intelligent or capable: Broken English, mispronunciation, stereotypical phrases (“many moons,” “How!”)

Linguistic racism isn’t just words that hurt feelings. It is a technique that the dominant group uses to enforce the racial hierarchy in order to maintain access and control over resources and institutions.