Words matter. Language has the power to heal, hurt, celebrate, or condemn. We can speak the same language, use the same words, and still not mean the same thing. I do not mean toe-May-toe
. Nor do I mean elevator vs. lift or apartment vs. flat.
So, what do
I mean? I mean, to quote Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride
, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
Powerful words used once incorrectly create misunderstanding and conflict. Below is my attempt to share more holistic, inclusive, and healing definitions in the context of social justice. To use this guide, we have to acknowledge that words have been used to dehumanize and reduce the value of people in this country. Those words can be tied to race, social economics, gender, national origin, and more. This is not a definitive list, but it’s the first in an ongoing occasional series to get to the heart of the words we say so often but do not truly understand.
. Oh yes, I am starting here. When you read dictionary definitions, they often over-simplify what racism is. Things like Merriam-Webster
’s definition of racism: “racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.” To me, this is only a preamble, and a messy one, at that, as it gives all of us the same racial power and standing. However, I know that as a Black woman, I can feel all the superiority in the world, but without any systemic power that I can wield to support that idea, any feelings I may have of “racial superiority” has the same impact as a slogan on a mug. You can see it, roll your eyes at it, but it won’t impact you getting a house loan, stopped by the police, more disciplined by a teacher, poor health care, or lower grades in school. Your annoyance of seeing my “Black is Beautiful” mug won’t take years off your life.
gets more to the point with its second entry, which hits on the key ingredient, central to what makes racism work: “the systemic oppression of a racial group to the social, economic, and political advantage of another specifically white supremacy.”
That's it, Webster
! The system, that power backing white supremacy, is the key. Without it, you do not have racism. So racism is an inherent belief in the existence of different races within the one human race and a racial hierarchy with whiteness as the top, which is centered, celebrated, and maintained by systematic oppression of those not identified as white.
. If you are to trust your Twitter and Facebook timelines — and don’t we all? — we are led to believe that there are a few horribly ignorant white supremacists and Nazis around but, for the most part, whiteness is benign. However, I am more of the hip-hop artist Guante’s school of thought that “white supremacy is not a shark, it is the water.”
White supremacy is: 1. The acceptance that, although we are all one human race, different skin color or national origin or ancestry equals a different species or race. 2. That there is a hierarchy of these races. 3. That whiteness is a biological fact and not a social construct 4. White cards are given out like Scouting Merit Badges, you “earn” them one at a time. (Check out the history of when Irish and Italians became white.) 5. You believe that whiteness and white people are the superior of all other human beings, manifested in white people taking up most of your attention, references, cultural interests, and life being centered on whiteness.
Does that sound like you? Well, growing up in America, we are trained to be a white supremacist — through our media, our education system, the arts, even many of our houses of worship. We are taught to believe that superheroes, presidents, CEOs, and god are all white men. That the epitome of beauty is a white woman with blonde hair and blue eyes. That the bad girl has dark hair, and the criminal girl has black skin.
To grow up in America is to be trained in white supremacy. We have to unlearn it. It’s a very long process to overcome the water we are all swimming in. We can point to big bad men in white hoods and laughable bad mustaches, but the “nice white lady,” the doctor, the nurse who does not give a Black child painkillers because they are “stronger” or “do not feel pain.” Or the “nice white lady” who works in the store and always pays a little extra attention to the Black customers. Or the “nice white lady” teacher who grades and disciplines her Black and Brown students differently than her white students. These are white supremacists who do a lifetime of damage, and worse.
The question is not, “How many white supremacists are in America?” The question is, “How many of us aren’t whites supremacists?” How can we learn to unlearn with them? Because this country is worse than “a house divided.” Our country’s foundation was poured with blood from the genocide of Native Americans and enslavement of Africans. With a first floor of exploiting workers, the poor, and women of all colors. And a second floor of American exceptionalism and anti-intelligence, all covered with a flimsy roof of celebrity worship.
How long before the house collapses?