Racism inhabits language as much as it inhabits systems, institutions, practices, and ideas. Although there are racial slurs that explicitly demonstrate this reality, there are other words, phrases, and forms of speech that operate on a much subtler level and might appear to be “harmless.” There is speech that homogenizes experiences or people, suggesting they and their struggles are all the same. There are words that are racialized, meaning they have a symbolic racial content behind them that might not be immediately obvious—especially to white folks. As much as we white folks like to talk about “the human race” or how “we are all human beings,” there is a false message of equality in these ideas that ignores the differences and inequalities in social experience. It is important to understand how racism and racist ideas in language have specific meanings and affect specific people; if we think we as whites have the freedom to create our own meanings and remove words from their original context so we can do whatever the fuck we want with them, this is also racist. So let’s look at some racialized phrases.
—“We should have a powwow about this” or “I’m going to powwow with my colleagues”
*Powwows are ritualistic gatherings of Indigenous peoples that involve their culture and heritage, they are not board meetings or casual check-ins. Using this phrase to describe an intellectual or professional gathering outside of Indigenous spaces is cultural appropriation—yes, this happens in language also. White people do not have powwows in any context. Ever. Although the use might seem “harmless,” powwows are still very much alive in the contemporary moment and, like Indigenous peoples themselves, they are not “things” of the past. We do not get to decide what this word means, and use it accordingly, when it already has a historical and current meaning.
—“Don’t get me started on welfare queens”
*Who could this phrase refer to exactly? As many white women as there are on welfare (YEP), the idea of the “welfare queen” is distinctly racialized and based on racial stereotypes of Black women being “lazy” and living on “charity.” If we look at the facts, more white women receive welfare than Black women—according to US Census statistics. So when we use this phrase, it is not about numbers, it is about race. When white folks say this, it creates the illusion that we are being “politically correct” in our language without directly talking about Black Women… even though that’s exactly who we’re talking about.
—“That’s so ghetto”
*One time I heard a white girl say “people don’t like the word ghetto because its negative and there’s something beautiful about living in the ghetto.” NOPE. Since none of us here are Black or Brown, we can’t speak for why these folks personally don’t like the word/phrase (and neither should any other white folks), but we do understand how this word/phrase is used to refer to something “dirty,” “trashy,” or “low-class.” Since white folks in the US don’t live in ghettos, when we use the word we are attaching it to the PoC who do live in ghettos. We equate things we think are “ghetto” with the specific people who live in them by using this language. It is dehumanizing.
—“You’re badass and stealthy like a ninja”
*This might seem like a compliment… but it isn’t. Ninjas have specific histories in Japan and Japanese culture, they aren’t teenage mutant turtles or white guys with black belts and black masks. Because their legacy in Japan can be situated in much earlier centuries, this is not a reason to describe anything covert or “stealthy” as similar or identical to being a ninja. This word is often equated with very general and confused ideas of “Asian” culture, meaning white folks who say this or make this representation in forms of media are combining stereotypes from multiple cultures on the continent of Asia. Either that, or they are appropriating Japanese culture to make it seem cool that they got away with stealing a candy bar.
—“I don’t want illegals in my neighborhood”
*The word “illegals” or any of its variations (“illegal alien” “illegal immigrant”) are perfect ways to disguise racist language, because these words enable white folks to pretend like they’re talking about undocumented immigrants in general and not a specific group of Brown folks from Mexico, Central America, and South America. Many anti-immigrant platforms are inextricably linked to the “protection” of the US-Mexico border, which says everything about the kind of immigrants they target. There are no ferocious and widespread campaigns that directly target, demonize, or attack immigrants with white skin. The argument that Jewish and Irish immigrants once faced similar threats ignores the fact that these folks were not considered to be “white” back then.
—“Terrorists are security threats to our nation”
*Like the KKK? Even though this claim seems neutral and seems to refer to anyone who commits acts of violence against the US, it is a claim that does not commonly refer to the KKK or any white terrorists who bomb buildings, create racial conspiracies, or commit mass shootings within the US. There is no billion-dollar war or campaign that invades multiple countries to end white terrorism. This claim racially lumps all Muslims, Arabs, and Muslim Arabs into a single category, and similarly implicates the religion of Islam as “threatening” to US “security.” If being secure means living without the fear of violence, then white folks need to understand that PoC in the US have not known this privilege for centuries because of white terrorists.