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Think Before You Speak: The American Vernacular Is Rife With Racist Connotations

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Photo by Miguel Á. Padriñán from Pexels CC0: https://bit.ly/2ZaiJPn";s

*This post was updated on Thursday, July 9, at 4:19 p.m.

The past few weeks of Black Lives Matter and anti-racism protests have raised questions about the white supremacist origins of English words and phrases in everyday English vocabulary such as "master bedroom" and "black magic."

Language is an integral part of any culture. Some words and phrases have become so woven into our vernacular that their racist origins may be overlooked.

“If we're not able and willing to address the racist connotations, associations and power dynamics that are implicit within our language and our linguistic views, then I don't know if we're going to be able to kind of grow past that next point,” said Jamaal Muwwakkil, a Ph.D. candidate in linguistics at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

Muwwakkill said the conversation should not be one about censorship. Rather, the discussion should be about the world future generations will live in.

Michel DeGraff, professor of linguistics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, agreed. He said that one cannot say Black lives matter without taking into account the importance of language.

“The point that is key is that most of us are not even aware of how language frames the perception of different ethnic groups and the way in which, through language, we learn very early on to value or devalue the humanity and the well-being of our fellow human being,” DeGraff said.

Some racist terms are also closely tied to class, according to Carey Latimore, professor of History and African-American Studies at Trinity University.

“I think it's better if we explain the history of it. And then, you know, maybe people will have a better understanding of whether or not they want to use that term or not,” Latimore said. “It's not just a racial term. It's a class term. Is that kind of a language that we want to use?”

But language is just one aspect of a larger race issue, and Muwwakkill agreed with Latimore that these racial terms need to be contextualized.

“The impact is still real and valid. And we can deal with that, and have a conversation about unity in that plane, as opposed to those who might double down on the racist implications actually truly mean to insert the power dynamics that are implicit therein,” he said.

Muwwakkill said there’s a lot of work to do overall and that the conversation about race in language should not be the end-all.

The term “lynch mob,” often used to describe an unjust attack, has a pretty clear controversial history. The etymology of other phrases, however, has been largely forgotten — like “cakewalk,” a term originally used when enslaved Black people would win a cake from their owners after dancing in a particular style.

A large part of American vernacular is color symbolism. The color white has a connotation of pureness or goodness. Whereas, things that are negative or evil are marked by the color black — “white knight” and “blacklist” for example. 

What other common phrases have racist origins, overtones or undertones? Are there other offensive terms that reference gender or ethnocentrism? Should new phrases be adopted? What is a solution?

What can language show about racial attitudes in the United States? Does the importance of racist origins remain even after years of linguistic evolution? Does focusing on language divert from other issues about race?

Guests:

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*This interview was recorded on Thursday, July 9.

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Kathleen Creedon can be reached at kathleen@tpr.org or on Twitter at @Kath_Creedon