The Limitations of Language

In Eduardo Bonilla Silva’s book chapter “The Style of Color Blindness: How to Talk Nasty about Minorities Without Sounding Racist,” he makes a caveat that in his analysis he is not calling white individuals racist, but rather addressing the individual in a racialized power system.  In the effort to explain academia’s understanding of racism to my friends who do not study these things, I always find myself in a dead end. My friends who are not aware of the continuing impact of race in America or do not understand the depth of the problem, often follow colorblind norms, as in not acknowledging race or its impact on a person’s life. The creation of colorblind norms following the Civil Rights Movement made being called a racist a very offensive term.  Because being racist was more socially acceptable prior to the Civil Rights Movement its communal meaning lied in an individual making offensive remarks or actions based on other people’s skin color.  After the Civil Rights Movement and the transition from racism being socially normative to socially abnormal, the term exists as a flaw of one’s moral character. To the academic community however, when we say racist and racism, as Bonilla Silva explains, we are referring to a system of power structures that unfairly advantages and disadvantages people based on their skin color. These two definitions are vastly different and mean different things to those in and out of the academic community; the word has multiple definitions.

Language structures our mind and the way we conceptualize and come to understand things.  Words develop depth and definition through the socio-historic context they are located in.  In this way, racism is not just an intellectual word to describe power structures, it is an emotionally charged and loaded word.  When members of the academic community who intellectualize the racial problems in the country try to explain their definition of racism to someone with a differing understanding of the word, it causes an emotional reaction.  These conversations often do not go well because it is essentially comparing apples and oranges.  This is especially the case when white people talk about experiences where they felt othered or discriminated against because of their race, experiences they see as reverse racism.  When you look at these experiences through academia’s understanding and definition of racism, technically this notion of “reverse racism” does not exist.  Referring back to this definition however, makes people feel as though their experiences are invalidated and does not often lead to meaningful outcomes.

It seems as though this disconnect between the ways in which people define and understand racism is impeding conversation by rigidly defining the term and dividing the academic community from the general public.  Does this then call for a new of vocabulary?

3 thoughts on “The Limitations of Language

  1. I think that discussing the racism in our society is a very difficult topic, and conversations could head in many different directions. It is important for all people involved in discussions to have the same definition for key words, but alas, conversations are not debates, and so definitions are not set in stone in the beginning. This could lead to miscommunications and disputes on ideas, but it is up for the people in the conversation to agree on what they are talking about, and sometimes have to agree to disagree in the moment unfortunately. Through my experiences, people do not change their thoughts in one conversation; it takes time. Maybe not a new vocabulary is necessary, but the way people talk about these topics and the ability to be open to new ideas is needed.

  2. I definitely agree that there’s a disconnect in our language. It’s difficult to remember that people aren’t as educated on the systemic racism in our society as people in academia. You walk a very fine line when talking with people, then, because everything feels so personal. I think also, that explaining to a person that you’re not attacking them personally, but rather going after the system that brought us into this thinking is important. But in a lot of cases, that might not be enough. Especially when talking to those people that are especially patriotic, because an attack on their country feels like an attack on them as an American citizen.

  3. Great post! I’ve been thinking about bridging the gap between learning about racism in an academic context to actually practicing it and talking about it to people. I like your point that maybe we do need a new language. But in the meantime, I think a good short term solution is for us to realize when we are using words that may be defined differently in an academic context and make sure to explain what we mean when we use them. This made me think of the Southern Poverty Law Center talk, when I think the speaker was trying to say that everyone can be prejudiced, but used the term racism, implying that reverse racism exists. Many people were rightfully uncomfortable by this comment and I think it was due to a miscommunication in how we define terms.

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