Saturday, December 13, 2014

Racist Euphemisms

At parties, I'm hesitant to tell strangers what I do for a living. Upon learning that I am an English professor, many make a face before admitting to being self-conscious talking to me. But when I was younger, I did my share of correcting people's English to their faces. Looking back, I realize that a big reason for this was my own face, a Chinese one, and every "You mean lie, not lay" was a riposte to every "You speak excellent English" visited upon me in my youth. (It takes a long time to decolonize your mind of internalized racism.) These days, I try to tell people that I don't care about their English, that what I do as an English professor is so much more important to me than lie/lay or else I wouldn't be doing it. What my fellow partygoers probably don't know is that a word like "irregardless" doesn't stop me in my tracks nearly as quickly as "Caucasian." Whenever I hear that word and other racist euphemisms, I want to sit down and have a long conversation about why they shouldn't be using that word.

I don't get invited to a lot of parties.

Here's what I really do as an English professor: I teach and write about how meaning is created, sustained, and changed. This means tracing the textual path between something and its social meaning, including and especially human bodies. In what ways do we, as Americans, arrive at the meanings associated with white bodies and non-white bodies? The relationship between dominant meanings and offensive images and words--such as caricatures and epithets--is pretty evident, but the construction of meaning is more quotidian and insidious than that. Tim Wise spoke of the absence of the word "overprivileged" in our dictionaries and collective consciousness, while "underprivileged" needs no explanation. Which groups are empowered when we aren't able to conceive of people as overprivileged? How else do everyday words and terms empower and disempower groups of people, particularly white people and people of color?

Because rhetorical contexts are not always the same, the euphemisms below will not always be interchangeable with the suggested alternatives, but many times they will be, which shows how power often travels along the path of least resistance.



These two aren't always interchangeable, but you'd be surprised how often they are. Journalists and public officials have no issues using the word "race." In fact, they go to great lengths to talk about race as something stable, something constant, which is a big problem. The idea of race, as it pertains to the relationship between people's skin color and how much power those people should have in society, was invented in 17th century colonial Virginia. Unfortunately, race morphed from an idea into a thing with great alacrity, so much so that most people came to understand race objectively, as existing on their very bodies and not in their consciousness. As a thing, then, race is much less controversial than the idea from which it sprung, which is white supremacy. Racism is the system of white supremacy. I'm not kidding myself that public figures will flock to use "white supremacy" instead of "race," but even "racism" is too controversial in many cases. In this story, the writers awkwardly go out of their way--multiple times--to substitute "race" for "racism": "The Jones family is African American. The Kaye family is white. The conversations each father has with his son about race are worlds apart." These fathers aren't talking about skin color only; they are talking about a historic relationship among groups of people with different skin colors. "Race" was once the story of that relationship until enough people believed it to be true. "Racism" is the only story of that relationship that we have left.



Go to Google News or a similar site and search for "race relations." See how many news stories turn up with this euphemism in the headline. The headline to this story says that "Americans remain divided in views on race relations," while this one tells us that "Majority believes race relations worse under Obama." In many cases, you can substitute the word "racism" for the term, and the resulting sentence will be more accurate and more elegant. My problem with the term "race relations" is that it implies that all racial groups in our society have equal responsibility for improving relationships. If this is so, what, may I ask, should black people be responsible for when it comes to improving relationships? Isn't the responsibility on a society and its institutions that legally enslaved, killed, segregated, Jim Crowed, incarcerated, and discriminated against black people for most of its history? "Race relations" as an idea reinforces the belief that we can fix racism without addressing its structural nature. All we need is a change of heart, in other words. Too often black people are expected to change their hearts, which is just another euphemism for "forgive those who dehumanize you." The photograph of the black boy and white officer hugging each other went viral partly because of the hope that a change of heart can end racism. "Race relations" reminds me of that terrible euphemism that became popular in the 1970s because people didn't want to say "sexism" or didn't know how to: "Battle of the Sexes." I'm encouraged that nobody really says that anymore, at least not without a hint of irony. We can only hope that "race relations" shares the same fate.



Racial attitudes. Racial motivations. Racial injustice. These terms and so many more would be improved by substituting "racist" for "racial." The main reason why this doesn't happen is because of a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of racism. That is, those in the public eye are hesitant to say "racist" because to do so in our dominant culture is tantamount to accusing someone, usually a white person, of being an evil, immoral person who hates people because of the color of the skin. However, understanding racism as a system--and not only as interpersonal conflict--allows us to see that whatever is racist reinforces white supremacy because racism is a white supremacy system. Until we understand this on a grand scale, however, using the word "racist" as an adjective or a noun will always give pause to most of us. In an article for the New Yorker, Jelani Cobb critiques the use of the term "racial profiling": "Nothing better illustrates the slick, manipulative power of euphemism than the fact that our dialogue takes seriously this non-term. There is no such thing as 'racial profiling'—there is simply racism." (For the record, "racist profiling" would fly in my style guide.) But I can see why "racial" is so popular; it seems objective, an established part of the lexicon of science and academia. "Racist" is so, well, literal. Full disclosure: the original title of this post was "On Racial Euphemisms." I guess I thought it sounded more professional. It takes a long time to decolonize your mind.


There are so many other euphemisms out there that work to delay or interrupt the antiracist movement, and blogs can say only so much. So, for further thought, here's a word cloud of euphemisms that keep us from confronting the reality of racism in our society. They're not code words like "thug" that allow people to shame black people without using the n-word. Rather, the audience for these words is predominantly white people, and they are often used to disguise or defer the full meaning of their historical relationships with people of color. Don't all euphemisms call our attention to a difference in perspective? So what makes it difficult for us to see the difference in perspective when we encounter terms like "race relations"? Don't get me wrong: some of these words are the right word with the right context, while in other contexts they are just bad euphemisms that give comfort to the powerful.

Tolerance. Tolerant. Intolerant. Intolerance. Equality. Diverse. Diversity. Bias. Biased. Culture. Cultural. Multicultural. Multiculturalism. Bigot. Bigoted. Race Prejudice. Prejudice. Prejudiced. Racialism. Racialist. Nationality. Ethnic. Ethnicity. White Privilege. Privilege. Whiteness. Insensitive. Inclusive. Inclusion. Inclusivity. Norwegian. Irish. English. Polish. Scottish. Italian. French. German. Swiss. Czech. European. Euro-American. American.

As for Caucasian . . . well, you don't want to say that. Unless you're ready to say Caucasoid, Negroid, and Mongoloid too, the terms used to classify and hierarchize the major "races" of man in the heyday of pseudo-scientific natural history. "Caucasian" hearkens back to the time when scientists and laypeople alike understood race as a biological phenomenon, a matter of skull size and forehead angle. Still, like "racial," the word "Caucasian" must strike some as objective and scientific. A little polite, maybe, for those not comfortable with saying "white." But we should say "white" instead, if only to remind ourselves of what has been lost. "White" is not an essential or genetic identity; "white" is what happened to those people who have come to be called it.

The other day, during my office hours, a white student came in to talk to me about her paper on the meaning of her diverse ethnic heritage--Norwegian, German, Irish, etc. "Do you know why," I started, "you have so many different European ethnicities in your ancestry?" She paused, made a face. Indeed, she did know.

English major.

Worrying about bad grammar at a party is a misdirection of our energies. It's time for a different kind of self-consciousness.


  1. I plan to correct my grammar. Excellent article I will tweet/retweet it

  2. Really appreciate it. Thanks for reading!

  3. Your blog is amazing - I'm reading through all your posts. This one reminds me of what professor Camara Jones said in one of my epidemiology classes, years ago: "When we measure race, what we're really measuring is racism." Sadly, but not surprisingly, none of my other professors ever reflected on why they were "measuring race" in their research studies. I'm learning so much from your posts and plan to share them...