People evolve a language in order to describe and thus control their circumstances, or in order not to be submerged by a reality that they cannot articulate. […] It goes without saying, then, that language is also a political instrument, means, and proof of power. — James Baldwin, (“If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?")
It’s a few Twitter outrage cycle past, so you probably need a quick refresher. Kevin Drum of Mother Jones urged people to reserve the word ‘white supremacy’ for Neo-Nazis and the KKK, and not for the underlying racist structures of which Neo-Nazis and the KKK are merely the most visible parts. Predictably, this misguided post received some pushback, especially from those familiar with the term’s origins.
More curious to me was Conor Friedersdorf’s defense of Kevin Drum:
It is awful to stigmatize people as cringeworthy for failing to speak in the vernacular of a tiny, insular subculture. Neither journalists nor academics speaking to a general audience can insist a term’s only meaning is a contested usage so little known that it confounds a longtime employee of Mother Jones and many residents of the Upper West Side. And it is deeply counterproductive to stigmatize those who use the common meaning of a well-known term with words like ‘embarrassing,’ and ‘mortifying.’
There is the obvious, uncontroversial point that, all else being equal, people should not be stigmatized for not knowing a word’s meaning. On that I agree. But there is also the quietly controversial point about power and language engineering that Friedersdorf is making, wittingly or not. That, I want to explore more.
Friedersdorf seems to implicitly endorse a majoritarian view about language: a word’s meaning is the one accepted by the majority. So, in this case, the meaning of ‘white supremacy’ is the one familiar to Kevin Drum and residents of the Upper West Side: it’s the stuff that only Neo-Nazis and the KKK are into, whatever those academics say.
As an academic, I don’t doubt that we deserve complaints about our jargons. But it’s worth noting here that the use of ‘white supremacy’ to refer to structural racism is not only a part of privileged academics' vernacular. Instead, as Chauncey DeVega notes, it goes back to WEB Du Bois and Frederick Douglass and, well, Black Americans developing the language to talk about their experiences. This subculture might too be tiny (compared to the white majority) and insulated (though not by their choice), but they deserve the credit for this vernacular.
Such precision about the subculture, though, is irrelevant to the majoritarian view about language. On this view, no subculture can ask the majority to speak the way that they do. The language is the one spoken by the majority, the vernaculars are spoken by the subcultures — whatever Baldwin says. As such, no subculture can insist on their vernacular meanings of a term. In fact, the meaning of a term accepted by the majority is — by definition! — the common meaning of the term in the language. And so the meaning of ‘white supremacy’ is, and must be, the one familiar to Kevin Drum (who is white) and residents of the Upper West Side (who are very white).
And that is what Friedersdorf seems to be expressing. It is not the obvious, uncontroversial point that, all else being equal, people should not be stigmatized for not knowing a word’s meaning. It is in fact a thesis about who gets to decide a word’s meaning: the subcultures must not insist on their meanings, especially when they conflict with the ones accepted by the dominant culture. As such, it is a view about language that prescribes the recreation and reinforcement of existing power structures in our talks.
While the majoritarian view of language is rarely explicitly stated, it is implicitly endorsed by many. To fully make sense of its implications, we need to consider another curious modern linguistic phenomenon: the word ‘racist’ apparently cannot refer to any person in the actual world. That is, our language has been engineered such that there are no racists.
There is racism, of course. The word ‘racist’ exists, obviously. And, without a doubt, the word is associated with the concept of a racist, which we certainly have in our heads.
But there are no racists.
The Neo-Nazi white nationalists refuse to be called racists. The KKK refuses to be called white supremacists. Trump ally Carl Paladino says “I certainly am not a racist”. And this guy, a member of the English Defence League, he’s definitely not a racist. (Content note: racism.)
Yes, these outright refusals to acknowledge the existence of racists, by the white extremists themselves, are extremely implausible. But they are not exceptional. In the same way that these extremists are just the most visible parts of the underlying racist structures, their claims about the word ‘racist’ are just the most blatant attempts of engineering our language so that there are no racists. The white moderates have their methods of linguistic engineering that work more covertly.
Some go for the there-are-too-many move. For example, Nick Kristof says “do we really want to caricature half of Americans, some of whom voted for President Obama twice, as racist bigots”? It just can’t be that many. It must be built into the common meaning of the word ‘racist’ that there are only very few racists in the actual world.
Others go for the it’s-politically-inconvenient move. For example, Drake Baer says the word ‘racist’ is best not used, especially when you are trying to talk to someone who might be a racist (which, you know, could be anyone). The word ‘racist’ can remain a part of the language in the abstract, but it must be excised from the way we talk. Whatever the common meaning of the word, it comes with a warning label that restricts its use.
(Baer suggests that we borrow an idea from some disability advocates and use person-first language. The thought is, I take it, that when we’d otherwise use ‘racist’, we should instead use ‘people with racism’.)
Vann Newkirk convincingly argues against these white moderate responses. As is often the case, he argues, such calls for civility fail to consider the people who suffer from the effects of racism. But I think the problem that underlies the no-racist phenomenon goes beyond civility. The problem, like the ‘white supremacy’ controversy, has to do with power and language.
In The Racial Contract, philosopher Charles Mills introduces the concept of epistemology of ignorance. Normally, epistemology is concerned with knowledge. However, according to Mills, structural racism prescribes for the dominant group — the whites, in the actual world — an epistemology that purposefully eschews knowledge with respect to matters of structural racism. The concept thus refers to
a particular pattern of localized and global cognitive dysfunctions (which are psychologically and socially functional), producing the ironic outcome that whites will in general be unable to understand the world they themselves have made […] a cognitive model that precludes self-transparency and genuine understanding of social realities.
Mills’s insight is that it is a central part of structural racism that it hides itself from our thoughts. I contend that the epistemology of ignorance has a counterpart in language. Call it semantics of non-reference: it is a central part of structural racism that it hides itself from our talks.
And now, finally, we get to how racists are made into unicorns. It is a case study of the semantics of non-reference that structural racism prescribes.
Unicorns? The word ‘unicorn’ exists. And the word is associated with the concept of a unicorn, which we have in our heads. But there are no unicorns. The meaning of the word is such that it does not refer to anything in the actual world.
It takes two steps to make racists into unicorns.
First, the white majority insists on linguistically privileging their preferred meanings of words. Sure, the subcultures can continue to speak their “vernaculars”, but — in a convenient interaction with the epistemology of ignorance — their meanings of words will remain so little known by the white majority such that they can still confound a longtime employee of Mother Jones and many residents of Upper West Side. (And, subculture people, don’t stigmatize people who use the common meaning!)
Second, the white majority — now with the power to decide a word’s meaning — engineers away the problematic words. Or, at least, it engineers away the words' problems. They might build into a word’s meaning that it just cannot refer to the majority of the majority. Or they might simply place a do-not-use label on it.
There you go. Racists are now made into unicorns. Well, at least the word ‘racist’ is made to be like the word ‘unicorn’. Of course, unlike unicorns, racists are still with us. But at least our language has been untethered from reality so that we can no longer talk about them.