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In California, a Black college freshman from the South is telling a story about his Latino friends from home when he is interrupted by a white classmate. “We say ‘Latinx’ here,” he recalls her saying, using a term he had not heard before, “because we respect trans people.”
In Philadelphia, Emma Blackson challenges her white neighbor’s assertion that Black children misbehave in school more than others. “It’s just my implicit bias,” the neighbor offers, saying that she had recently learned the phrase.
In Chicago, Kelsey O’Donnell, 31, wonders why colleagues and friends have suddenly started saying “BIPOC,” an acronym that encompasses individuals who are Black, Indigenous or other people of color. Where had it come from? “There was really nobody to ask,” says O’Donnell, who is white. “It was just, ‘This is what we say now.’”
Americans have always wrestled with language when it comes to describing race, with phrases and vocabulary changing to meet the struggles and values of the moment. But especially in the wake of last summer’s protests for social justice, there is a heightened attention to this language, say scholars and activists, as some on the left try to advance changes in the culture through words.
“You can’t change what you can’t name,” said Cathy Albisa, vice president of the education nonprofit Race Forward.
For some people, though, the new lexicon has become a kind of inscrutable code, set at a frequency that only a narrow, highly educated slice of the country can understand or even a political litmus test in which the answers continually change. Others feel disappointment, after so many protests last summer demanded far deeper change on issues like criminal justice and voting rights.
“I really believed America was having a reckoning when it came to race,” said Blackson, a Black graduate student in epidemiology who has expressed her disillusionment on Twitter. “So far it’s been a lot of words.”
Unsurprisingly, the language itself has become contested, especially by conservatives who have leveraged discomfort with the new vocabulary to energize their base of white voters, referring to it as “wokespeak.” One conservative think tank circulated a list of words that it said could alert parents that what has been labeled critical race theory is being taught in their children’s schools, including “microaggressions” and “Black Lives Matter.”
The new language extends beyond race, adding phrases and introducing ideas that are new to many Americans. Gender-neutral terms like “Latinx,” for people of Latin American descent, “they/them” pronouns that refer to a single person, and “birthing parent” or “pregnant people” instead of “mother,” to be inclusive of trans people, are also gaining traction.
Some activists defend the focus on language, saying that the way people use words is not mere symbolism but is necessary to achieving justice.
“Saying something like, ‘Black people are less likely to get a loan from the bank,’ instead of saying, ‘Banks are less likely to give loans to Black people,’ might feel like it’s just me wording it differently,” said Rashad Robinson, president of the racial justice organization Color of Change. “But ‘Black people are less likely to get a loan from the bank’ makes people ask themselves, ‘What’s wrong with Black people? Let’s get them financial literacy programs.’ The other way is saying, ‘What’s wrong with the banks?’”
Robinson added, “When you’ve been on the margin, being able to claim a language and a narrative and a set of words to express yourself is incredibly important.”
Still, some other self-identified liberals who said they care deeply about social justice feel uncomfortable with some of the changes and the pressure that can be associated with them.
O’Donnell of Chicago said that, especially when she is among other white, college-educated liberals, “I’m exhausted by the constant need to be wary or you’ll instantly be labeled racist or anti-trans.”
And Stephen Paisley of Ithaca, New York, said he cringed at hearing libraries described at an academic conference as “sites of violence,” which is intended to reflect biases in how their rare books collections are curated. Rather than language that “tries to guilt people into action,” he said, he wishes the message was “white people, too, suffer from living in a society in which racial injustices and inequities persist.”
Many of the words surfacing in today’s language debates are not new.
“Implicit bias” traces to the work of psychologists in the 1990s, when the field began to document the subconscious associations that cause people to harbor stereotypes. The effort to substitute “enslaved people” for “slaves” has been long advocated by many Black academics to emphasize the violence that defined American slavery and the humanity of those subjected to it, said Anne Charity Hudley, a linguist at Stanford University.
But it is only recently, Hudley said, that “all these terms are swirling around more in the public consciousness.”
The murder of George Floyd by the police and the outraged protests that followed — in large cities but also in small towns and suburbs across the country — was one catalyst for spreading the terms. The words reverberated across social media and book groups. The word “racism” is being looked up online twice as often as before the killing of Floyd, according to Merriam-Webster, which has updated its definition to illustrate how racism can be systemic. And more companies, small and large, began requiring language training as part of broader programs they say are aimed at creating a more welcoming culture for diverse workforces.
In a reflection of its surging popularity, “BIPOC” (pronounced “bye-pock”) received its first Merriam-Webster dictionary entry this year, though a number of linguists said they were not sure how the term emerged.
One reason BIPOC has engendered both backlash and bewilderment, said Nicole Holliday, a linguist at the University of Pennsylvania, is because it seems to be an example of “top-down language reform.” Widely shared over social media last year, its champions have said it is intended to emphasize the severity of racial injustice on Black and Indigenous people. But few Black or Indigenous people use it, language scholars say.
In a national poll conducted by Ipsos for The New York Times, more than twice as many white Democrats said they felt “very favorably” toward “BIPOC” as Americans who identify as any of the nonwhite racial categories it encompasses.
In “Why BIPOC Fails,” an essay in a recent issue of the Virginia Law Review, Meera Deo, a sociologist and professor at Southwestern Law School, notes that the term can end up being “confusing” or “misleading.”
The acronym, which was widely adopted only in the last year or so, is often misread as meaning “bisexual people of color.” Asian and Latino Americans are often left to wonder whether they are covered by the “POC” part of the acronym.
Racial justice activists have also long distinguished “equality” from “equity,” but the latter has filtered into the mainstream more recently. Supporters of the word say that it is preferable to “equality,” which they argue suggests that equal treatment is sufficient to achieve fair outcomes — a premise they maintain disregards built-in disadvantages caused by past and present discrimination, and the need for policies to counteract them.
The terms can seem to change swiftly, too. Some scholars are now arguing that “implicit bias” should be replaced with “complicit bias,” saying that the former has been used as a kind of exoneration from the biases one holds rather than a call to address them.
In another example, “LGBTQ,” the abbreviation for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer or questioning has recently incorporated an “I” for intersex, for people whose biological sex characteristics don’t fit the traditional definitions of female or male, and an “A” for either asexual — someone who experiences little or no sexual attraction — or ally. And the addition of a “+” at the end is aimed at indicating that the term should not be seen as comprehensive.
“I’m trying to think why it makes me so angry that they keep adding letters,” said Laura Bradford, 52, of Nashville, Tennessee, who is bisexual and married to a woman. “It’s like, ‘We’re trying to understand, but you’re making it too complicated!’”
Still, like many Americans, Bradford said that she had felt “woken up” last summer after educating herself about racism in America. And the identity-politics term that disturbs her most is the pejorative use of “woke,” a word that has cycled through several meanings, including one that reflected her own experience but now carries the implication that social justice ideals are absurd or insincere.
“It’s mean,” she said. “Being woke is about realizing that you’ve been hurting someone for a long time.”
Whether using certain words is an indication of a willingness to upend the traditions that reinforce social inequalities, however, is unclear. For white liberals especially, “there is social pressure to engage with these words in the social moment,” Hudley said. “They see this as part of what it means to be an educated white person in certain places and spaces, whether they agree with it or not.”
The current struggles over language reflect meaningful shifts in thinking on some essential issues, experts say.
The addition of the word “structural” or “systemic” ahead of “racism,” for instance, stems from a broader acceptance of the idea that racism is not just personal prejudice but a set of disadvantages that start with the average white child being born into families that are wealthier than others, and extend to laws related to housing and voting, bank lending policies and education systems.
“Compared to 18 months ago, the term ‘systemic racism’ is being used across the board, whether people are talking about it or denying its existence,” said historian Ibram X. Kendi, whose book “How to Be an Antiracist” has been widely read.
For Nancy McDonald Ladd, a white senior minister at a Unitarian church in Bethesda, Maryland, that is made up of mostly white progressives, the fixation with language stems at least partly from a sincere desire to reorient one’s worldview. It can be hard to stay on top of lexical tweaks, which include words that distinguish between defining a person and describing a situation — “unhoused” instead of “homeless.”
Although Ladd has sometimes seen her congregants’ deliberations over words as a substitute for more substantive action, the language is “not just virtue-signaling,” she said, referring to expressions of opinion intended to publicly demonstrate a person’s good character.
“It’s this deep-seated anxiety about failing,” she said. “So they’re reaching, we are reaching, reaching, reaching for the perfect language.”
Language change, linguists say, has long been a tool in shaping social perceptions of identity.
“Queer,” once a pejorative for gay, has been reclaimed as a self-affirming term, especially by a younger generation of the LGBTQIA+ community. “African American,” which became prevalent in the 1980s after the Rev. Jesse Jackson objected that “black” reduced the complexity of race to a skin color, is now being superseded by “Black,” with a capital “B,” to underline a shared political identity among disparate groups.
Changes in language, of course, also make people feel anxious because they signify changes in society.
The honorific “Ms.” for instance, encountered decades of resistance before it became a widely preferred alternative to identifying women by their marital status.
Still others see the attention on language as a dodge.
Increasingly prevalent statements known as “land acknowledgments,” in which officials mention that a speech or public event is taking place on land once occupied by Indigenous people have recently come in for criticism. Summer Wilkie, a member of the Cherokee Nation, suggested in a recent essay that they can simply seem shallow and take focus away from policies that support Indigenous people.
Those statements that are meant to convey “thank you” or indicate that the speaker is a “guest,” Wilkie said, are especially “empty and alienating.”
Lucia Martel-Dow, an immigration lawyer in liberal Marin County in California, has had a similar thought about white progressives who reflexively use “Latinx.” She has no problem with the term, which has been adopted by a small fraction of U.S. adults who identify as being of Latin American descent, to avoid defaulting to the masculine “Latino” and to be inclusive of people who identify as neither male nor female. But how many white Marin residents making a point to use inclusive language, she wondered, also supported changing the zoning laws to create more housing opportunities for Latin American immigrants?
“You can say ‘Latinx’ all day,” she said, “but if you’re not doing the work, I don’t care.”
Such observations are borne out in a national survey this year by Jennifer Chudy, a political scientist at Wellesley College. Even white Americans with the highest levels of concern about racial discrimination, she found, ranked activities like “listening to people of color” or “educating myself about racism” as more important than “choosing to live in a racially diverse community,” “bringing racial issues to the attention of elected officials,” or voting.
One risk of using words without really meaning them, said Holliday, the linguist, is the overuse of a term — like “inclusion” — to the point where its meaning is diluted, which linguists call “semantic bleaching.”
At the same time, critics note, conservatives have leveraged discomfort with “woke language” to pass laws in several states limiting how teachers can discuss racism and sexism.
“Symbolic progress placates people who are pushing for change, and it also invites backlash from those who want to maintain the status quo,” said Deo, of Southwestern Law School. “So you might end up worse off than where you started.”
What makes this linguistic moment so fraught, language scholars say, is that the words are often a proxy for the debate over some of the nation’s most pressing cultural questions.
“Some of these terms will endure, and some will not,” said Viet Thanh Nguyen, a professor of English, American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California. “But in the period where terms are new, we are still undergoing a political struggle whose resolution is not yet determined, so the words themselves become the site of conflict.”
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