Standard Language & Vernacular
(Note: I’m not a linguist in any way, shape, or form, so these are my thoughts based on my observations alone. Those of you with academic training in this area may disagree; if so, feel free to discuss it politely.)
Words are a means of communication. They are basic building blocks that, well-chosen, allow us to share ideas and concepts precisely and clearly because their agreed-upon standard definitions are codified and recorded. When we see or hear a word that we don’t know, we will usually look that word’s meaning up in a dictionary or something similar (assuming we can’t infer the meaning from context).
Language, though, isn’t static. It evolves, and part of that evolution is changes in the meaning of words. Anyone can redefine the meaning of a word to suit themselves. However, until that redefinition becomes accepted through the greater culture, it’s likely to only cause misunderstandings.
That’s exactly what has happened with the word “racist,” as TJ & I saw last week. People in the activist subculture have decided to broaden the definition of racist, and a number of other words, in an attempt (as I understand it) to take them out of the oppressive culture at large and reflect the point of view of the oppressed groups. That works just fine when you’re communicating strictly within that subculture, but problems are going to arise when you try to communicate outside of it.
Dictionaries define standard language, Standard language is defined for the broadest, albeit least precise, spectrum of communication. Dialect & vernacular don’t find their way into standard definitions until they have become standard. One of the most obvious examples is the lack of African-American Vernacular English, or “black dialect” (for lack of a better term) in such reference works. It’s a core part of its particular subculture, and two people from that subculture are going to be just fine using it to talk together. If someone starts talking with me & using a lot of it, I’m going to become very confused very quickly because, not being a member of that subculture, I don’t know the dialect & can’t code-switch to use it.
“Racist” & Other Words
During the discussion last week, someone pointed out to us that “racist” is just a word. Um, no. Words have the power to hurt, to create misunderstandings. Some words have an extraordinary power; some words are not just words. The obvious example is one I’m not even willing to write directly: the “n” word.
It’s no surprise that the term “racist” has gotten a new, broader definition within one subculture. But it should be no shock that people not of that subculture disagree with that new definition, especially when it’s used against them. It should not have been a shock that TJ & I both objected to being called a racist simply by virtue of being born white. It should not be a shock that not everyone will accept your redefinition just on your say-so, even if they agree with you on other issues.
I should add that “racist” is a particularly highly charged word anyway, especially among those of us who actually grew up during or right after the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-1960s. For us, it refers to the active oppressors, the lynch mobs, the cops who beat the Selma marchers, the county officials who did their best to suppress black voters, and on and on and on. While we may occasionally slip up & act or speak in a racist manner, because we aren’t perfect, we work at not doing so. We do not consider “racist” part of our identity, and yes, we resent those who don’t know us making an assumption based on (perceived) genetics.
Insisting that allies identify themselves by a term they find odious is a really good way to shut down both communication and cooperation. A couple of people suggested alternative terms which they thought conveyed the real intent of the Group Member making the accusation. One was “sinner.” HAHAHAHAHA. TJ is Jewish & I am Pagan. That’s just NOT going to work. Another suggestion was “privileged.” I’ll own that one. I AM privileged, by circumstances of my birth and upbringing as well as my current life, and I am well aware of that. But the connotations, I think, are different.
Words do matter.
To be continued…