*Content note: This post is explicitly about language that some consider racist, and it’s extremely difficult to talk about that language without using the terms themselves. While I will endeavor to avoid some of the slurs when I can make my point without them, some will end up being used.
A week or so ago, a friend linked this post on social media. It’s a common type of post, really – here are some words you might be saying that actually maybe you should think about *not* saying, because racist. And as happens in many instances when this type of point is raised, some (generally white) people respond with some questions about whether all of these terms really are, in fact, racist. As I’ve observed the way these conversations happen, I notice two types of arguments that are raised:
- Look, this term wasn’t originally intended to be offensive. Here’s an etymological dictionary that says it meant something innocuous. Therefore, it’s not racist.
- But…language changes, doesn’t it? So just because this term originates as a racist insult, does that still matter if we no longer know about that original association?
If you noticed that these are inherently contradictory, ten points for you! They are, of course, not applied to the same terms, nor are they necessarily arguments used by the same people. But it is worth comparing and contrasting the ideas, assumptions, and beliefs about how meaning works that are underlying each of them.
The first comes up a lot in relation to the controversy surrounding the Washington NFL team name. This NPR article does a nice job outlining the point in detail. The work of linguist/historian Ives Goddard is the authoritative reference point invoked in these, and
as that article outlines, it is possible to conclude that indeed, the word was not a hateful slur from its origin. There is, however, an alternative possible origin story for this word, which is indeed very offensive and violent, and which is cited by many Indigenous people as what they were taught about the word’s origin. It’s worth recognizing how this works as yet another example where Western academic knowledge is prioritized over Indigenous knowledge, but at the same time, I want to make the case that even if the benign story is the accurate one, using that as justification to keep the name and logo is still racist.
A very similar type of argument (complete with another etymological trace done by Goddard himself) is outlined in Jane Hill’s fantastic book The Everyday Language of White Racism, where she refers to this as a “baptismal ideology”. The idea is that the most authoritative definition of a word is found in its original meaning, and it’s one we use in a number of different contexts beyond debates about racism. In academics, for example, we often explicitly try to return to the original coinage of a term in order to ensure that we aren’t relying on misinterpretations or a kind of “broken telephone” effect. In addition to the weight of the origin, this argument treats linguists like Goddard as authorities not just about the history of certain forms of language, but about the actual meaning of particular words (to my knowledge, Goddard has never commented on these ways of deploying his name in support of the continued use of these words). This is rooted in assumptions not only about etymology, but about authority, in establishing meaning.
The opposite comes up with respect to words like “gyp”, meaning “to short change, rip off”. As the article linked above notes, this is derived from the word “gypsy”, which is itself a slur applied to Roma people (who remain a highly marginalized group of people living primarily in Europe). That meaning is, to a degree, opaque at this point, so the argument goes – if the vast majority of people using a term are not only not trying to be offensive, they’re not even aware that there is a semantic connection to this other word, has the meaning drifted enough from its source that we don’t have to call it racist anymore? This perspective is rooted in the (correct) notion that language changes, and places authority over what a word “really” means in the intentions and knowledge of the speakers who use it.
What is important about this argument, to me, isn’t to decide which of these two views is more “correct” than the other. Both contain some elements of truth, in a historical as well as a broad theoretical sense. Both also contain some ideological bases that assume meaning works in specific and limited types of ways. The overall picture of how meaning does work, especially in regard to heated and complex areas like linguistic racism and what constitutes a ‘slur’, is far more complicated than either of these positions can singledhandedly capture. As someone who is very much invested in expanding people’s acceptance of language change (because refusal to allow it to change is so often a tool used by the privileged to put down those most likely to change it), I will admit I wrestled for a while with what was wrong with the second one. And then I saw it – the position used changes depending on what is the most efficient ideological approach to allowing dominant folks to feel okay about using terms that are, at best, problematic (and at worst, overtly racist). Though they are, on their face, opposite to each other, they work to accomplish the same task. That task, at its core, is about the maintenance of privilege.
Slurs – whether racist, sexist, homophobic, or any other mode of oppression – are particularly potent forms of language. Because their meaning and the weight different connotations carry within them is subject to such constant commentary and debate, these meanings are enhanced – we don’t just hear them when they are used, we hear them when they are discussed, and analyzed, and discussed again (like I am doing right here, yes). To an extent, this is why the negative meaning is almost always going to outweigh any neutral version. At the same time, the very fact that such heated debates emerge whenever people point out that specific words are hurtful or upsetting to them illustrates how hard privileged people work to protect their privilege. The loss of a few (or even a lot of) words from my repertoire doesn’t really hinder my communicative creativity all that much – it limits me verbally about to the same degree that not being allowed to hit people limits my range of acceptable arm motions. The fact that we strive for ideologies of maximal offensiveness allowed is yet another ugly feature of a structurally racist society.