Supremacy and Privilege: The Insidious Consequences of Language

The social constructs that define our reality seem so natural and organic it is as if they were created along with the four elements. But we know that things like race and gender were built by people in order to create a hierarchal society, so how do we begin to deconstruct the categories we both rely on and often cannot see? I suggest that the first step to deconstruction is changing how we describe our identities and the identities of others.

I, a white female, have the privilege of calling myself an American.  When I introduce myself as such there is no need for a qualifying ethnicity to explain who I am. Yet, we as American’s do not permit just anyone to hold that single identity.  Identities are sensitive and being able to choose ones own identity is a tremendous privilege (although it should be a right) however, chosen identities can go only as far as societal confines allow.  That the terms African-American, Asian-American, Mexican-American, Muslim-American, and all others are not terms that pay homage to the complexity of identity but that they serve to qualify “American-ness”. Ask yourself, when have you heard someone being called a French-American? Swedish-American? British-American? My guess is you rarely do.

It does not surprise me that Black and Brown people have to carry around a hyphen. And that hyphen, just like the scales of our justice system, does not bare the weight of the words evenly. When you describe someone as a “Muslim-American”, let’s say, you’re automatically making being a Muslim the most salient aspect of a person’s identity—an aspect that holds real, tangible consequences in a country built for and controlled by the WASP male.

Our identities exist only as much as our non-identities do. I am white in opposition to your blackness. I am a girl in opposition to your maleness. I am straight in opposition to your gayness. And through all of the oppositions that our identities are based on a normality is created. What if the “others” of society became the “normal” and vice versa? What would this do to how we view dominant and oppressed groups? For example, instead of classifying myself as “able-bodied”, what if I described myself as “nondisabled”, as Johnson does in “Power, Privilege, and Difference” (Chapter 2). By bringing the background to the foreground we are not only sending a reminder that these labels were socially constructed, we are also shifting the normative to include a previously excluded/marginalized group.

In America, white is so normalized that few whites even acknowledge their race as part of their identities. As such, other classifications were created based off of the construct of whiteness, leaving all other skin shades to live on the outskirts of normal. But what if I was described not as white (a term the implies normality, supremacy, and power) but as a person of noncolor? Instead of the person of color being compared to the norm (whiteness), now the person of noncolor would be compared to the new norm (people of color). This slight change in our rhetoric could potentially allow for a reallocation of power.

Change does not occur in policy or legislation. Change happens in the hearts and minds of people. It is not enough for us to rely simply on our thoughts, feelings or intentions to initiate change. It is our job to begin translating those internal factors to external ones. We are all taught to think before we speak but I encourage us to push that even more. I encourage you to deconstruct, destroy and demolish everything you have been taught to think before you speak it out loud. If language perpetuates systems, what will happen if we change that language?

1 thought on “Supremacy and Privilege: The Insidious Consequences of Language

  1. I think that what you have about identity and questioning the reversal of what we consider normative versus non-normative is really powerful. In considering identity, it is interesting to think how we as people do not necessarily create the labels that we follow and how following a label results in a complex construction of how we present ourselves within that identifying box. Specifically, identification can be, as you said, fragile, but it can also lead us to feel deeper consequences than what we may give it credit for when in situations where stereotypes are present.

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