Anti-racist terminology is not pedantic. The systematicity of racism is visceral, and your skepticism derives from your ethnocentric worldview.

Some individuals believe that the terminology used to discuss racism beyond personal experiences is unnecessarily pedantic and elitist. There are at least two plausible explanations of the reasoning behind this sentiment. One possibility is that the individual in question does not understand the systemic problem of racism, and believes that racism is something that is done by only crazed individuals. This first possibility will be discussed in this post.

An individual who thinks that racism is merely individual acts of hatred by mentally-ill white individuals does not understand that racism is systemic and pervasive. Racism is not exclusive to the political right and political conservatives, and hatred (explicit or implicit) against a racial group x is not necessary for holding racist beliefs about racial group x. Political liberals and even the political left may harbour racist beliefs that are based on misconceptions* about others’ lack of competence rather than hatred. Even people of colour of any political orientation may be racist against their own racial group and other racialized groups because they have internalized the racist belief system that permeates our culture.

If an individual does not understand the systemic problem of racism and believes that racism is about random acts of hatred committed by crazed white individuals, then it is reasonable to infer that she also thinks that terms like ‘systemic racism’, ‘internalized racism’, ‘racialized’, ‘microaggression’, and ‘microinsults’ have nothing to do with reality and are academic posturing. If she does not directly experience systemic racism, internalized racism, racialization, microaggression, and microinsults, then she would probably believe that these are merely theoretical constructs invented by academics in ivory towers. If this individual believes that to use such terms is to complicate things, then she likely has a very simplistic and superficial understanding of how racism works. If an individual does not experience microinsults herself and thinks that the idea of ‘microinsults’ is meaningless academese, then she is merely projecting her own detachment and opaqueness with respect to racism on to the term itself.

That something is ‘complex’ or ‘elusive’ to white people does not mean that it is universally complex and elusive to all humans. There can exist things that are experienced at a very basic level of perception by one group of people, yet not be recognized by another group due to the other’s lack of experience or lack of conceptual background. For example, East Asian cultures generally perceive umami or xiānwèi as a basic taste, but most Westerners would have to expend cognitive effort to taste it as ‘umami’. Moreover, the type of Westerners who would use the word ‘umami’ tend to be more educated than the general population, but this does not indicate that the concept of ‘umami’ itself is elitist and academic.

Ultimately, if an individual feels that terms like ‘systemic racism’, ‘internalized racism’, ‘racialized’, ‘microaggression’, and ‘microinsults’ have empty referents, it is a manifestation of her aloofness, not the academic’s.

* White liberals and white leftists may travel to ‘Africa’ or another geographical region and expect that they can help non-whites, assuming that the problem is lack of ingenuity on the part of non-whites. Often, these self-styled ‘philanthropists’ assume that they are competent enough to solve other people’s problems without researching the situation or without having any working experience in such projects. They assume that poverty in developing countries is about lack of resources and ignore Western complicity, because they would like to maintain their self-perception as white saviours.

16 Responses to “Anti-racist terminology is not pedantic. The systematicity of racism is visceral, and your skepticism derives from your ethnocentric worldview.”

  1. mthgk Says:

    Hi Restructure!,

    I just want to reiterate that I do not believe, “terms like ’systemic racism’, ‘internalized racism’, ‘racialized’, ‘microaggression’, and ‘microinsults’ have empty referents,” especially when used by non-whites. I just have reservations with whites using this terminology, especially with each other, for the very reasons you stated they might not like it; they don’t have first had experience with what these words refer to.

    I don’ t think whites should be buffered from the pain and anguish racist views and practices have caused non-whites. I think some whites take refuge from their feelings and the feelings of others by over-intellectualizing a topic. I guess all I was saying at SWPD is that this approach may not get them to truly understand the extent and depth of damage done by white supremacists.

  2. Restructure! Says:

    I don’t think that you hold this view. However, I think that the ‘second possibility’ that I have yet to discuss applies to you. This second possibility is “the individual who feels that antiracist language is elitist is actually making a pragmatic argument to make racism more understandable and ‘real’ for those who do not directly experience the specific racism in question.”

    Originally, I was going to write about both possibilities, but then the post got too long.

  3. becca b Says:

    I think these terms can be perceived as pedantic and elitist without necessarily being seen as having empty referents.

    Say I’m chatting about racism with a friend who has a good understanding of racism on a practical level, but hasn’t had any particular education on the subject. My friend understands that racism is part of an entire society, and not simply a series of individual racist acts. However, he has never used the term “systematic racism” to describe this concept. He may feel alienated if I insist on using this and other similar terms, and feel that I am being elitist by using a jargon that is generally found in an academic setting.

    It’s not that the concepts are overly specific (I think the words you mention exist for very important reasons); it’s that the terminology used in referring to those concepts is unfamilar to the general public and could therefore turn people away from valuable discussions. Perhaps part of the solution is to be conscious of your audience and to make sure you fully explain any ideas that may be unfamiliar and therefore come across as elitist.

  4. Annie Says:

    “I think some whites take refuge from their feelings and the feelings of others by over-intellectualizing a topic.”

    I agree with mthgk’s remarks and in particular this statement. When white people comfortably toss around antiracist language in certain contexts I become suspicious that the words are being used as an easy substitute for learning and introspection. This is not always true, of course, but the potential for disingenuous or psychologically defensive use is there. I do not believe that it is up to people of color to explain these terms or make them “accessible” to white people, but I do believe it is up to white people to recognize the assumptions inherent in their use of this language and the full extent of their motivations for doing so.

  5. Nquest Says:

    Annie, I think I agree. You do have to wonder if some people, like the famous line from Rush Hour, even “understand the words coming out of [their] mouth.”

  6. Restructure! Says:

    I hear you, Nquest.

    I’m quite frustrated at Macon D. There are so many things wrong with his behaviour that I don’t even know where to start. This has been a revelation for me. Previously, I thought that book learning was all good, but it seems like people can read books and even hand-type transcripts and not understand what is being said.

    There may be some more fundamental problems with how he gathers knowledge that has nothing to do with race. Also, it seems like he has some serious issues with reading comprehension.

  7. Nquest Says:

    Restructure, Macon wouldn’t be the first person I’ve interacted with who responded in the way Macon has. So, I guess there’s no revelation there for me and, really, I was talking about things more broadly, again, because I’ve encountered stuff like that so many times now I’m losing count.

    I intended on just making a comment about the way people use words. I should have been a linguist because I’m always looking at people’s choice of words. I also think about what Annie characterized so well and the history of White people using socially acceptable language when there is a demonstrated “shallow understanding” (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s term).

  8. Restructure! Says:

    Sorry, Nquest. I was projecting my own frustration on to your words.

    I’m still a ‘she’, by the way. (You continued to refer to me as a ‘he’ on Macon’s blog.)

  9. Nquest Says:

    Sorry about that. I thought I had corrected myself.

  10. grandpa dinosaur Says:

    “I think some whites take refuge from their feelings and the feelings of others by over-intellectualizing a topic.”

    Ain’t that the story of my life, man.

  11. Restructure! Says:

    I agree with becca b that one should know her audience.

    I should probably give some more context behind what annoyed me to motivate me to write about that topic. mthgk started the topic at StuffWhitePeopleDo, but someone else said something superficially similar but actually different, that antiracist terminology should not be used, and we should use “plain language” instead. However, this person retracted the statement after some discussion.

    It would not have bugged me enough to write about, but around the same time, I saw some comments on a Racialicious post, The fallacy of colorblind post-raciality, and a commenter called jed said this:

    Colorblindness as a white solution to racism parallels “Let sleeping dogs lie.” It is a beginning, and after several generations pass, perhaps so too will most racism. So, what is a more palatable alternative to colorblindness? I never see that discussed.

    It’s annoying, but typical. Later on, jed says this:

    >> “Color-blindness” reflects the deeper denial pervasive in shared American consciousness.

    Do you actually expect that to sell to the mainstream? That may play well in the university classroom, but it won’t get any mileage in the “typical american living room”. Whites who hear psychobabble like that think “they just need something to squawk about”. Hell, many americans don’t even believe in the “shared American consciousness” regardless of whether the issue is racism, sexism, or even food.

    This really annoyed me, and I felt the problem was white people’s experiential detachment from racism. The sentence jeb quoted was pretty clear and understandable to me, and I felt that his attitude had the effect of taking away the words we have to label our experiences and censoring us (people of colour).

    Another interesting Racialicious comment thread was Are We Too Intense?. PaulPortland, who is a PoC, brought up the term ‘microaggressions’ to describe the type of racism that he experiences and is defensive about. He didn’t define it; he just used it in a sentence. Later on, one commenter said that s/he liked the term ‘microaggressions’, and another commenter said that the concept of ‘microaggressions’ was useful. It seemed that these commenters were introduced to the concept/term of ‘microaggressions’ recently, and they immediately understood what it meant and found the concept/term useful and empowering. I think ‘microaggressions’ is intuitively understandable when used in a sentence and when you yourself experience microaggressions.

    Personally, I find antiracist terminology very empowering, because it gave me the language to describe things I had experienced but could not communicate previously. To me, the words have a very real connection with reality, and if I was forced not to use them, I would feel impaired and restrained.

    I now see how some whites over-intellectualize without real understanding, but I’m not sure if it’s the terms themselves that are problematic or difficult. It seems like they just don’t have the conceptual background to understand complex concepts about race and racism.

  12. tomtom Says:

    “Anti-racist terminology is not pedantic.”

    What? It is and it isn’t, depending on who’s speaking or writing. There are a lot of very pedantic terms that some anti-racists use, especially if they’re scholars.

    And what are the “so many things wrong with macon d’s behaviour”? What in the world are you talking about? His blog is great! (came over here from there, of course)

  13. Katie Says:

    hmmm. yes yes and yes to it all.

    and yeah, i too am noticing something up with SWPL.

  14. Katie Says:

    er, I mean, SWPD.

  15. Anti-Racist Terminology is Not Pedantic | illvox: anarchist people of color, race, anarchy, revolution Says:

    […] Restructure Share and […]

  16. Earline Ng Says:

    If I had a greenback for each time I came here! Amazing post.

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