good white people

Stop Policing My Language

Apologies for my failure to create a timely response but racism is quick and fluid and it’s hard to stay on top of its every move and formation.

Again. Or, I am Tired

Last week, once again, whiteness (a term I will use interchangeably with evangelicalism in this piece) proved that it is more committed to holiness and purity than justice. A black professor at a Reformed evangelical college wrote about the steadfast refusal of white evangelism to examine its own white supremacy on Twitter. This is nothing new, he has been speaking on the subject for decades.

However, this time, his tweet was responded to by prominent white Baptist pastor, who, instead of examining the content of this man’s argument, chose to dismiss all of it because the thread contained the word “Oreo” as a descriptor. Instead of engaging in a much-needed dialogue, the entire conversation was destroyed because white people insisted that the language -- the word Oreo -- used was too crude to to warrant actual discussion of the subject at hand.

This got me thinking about all the tactics white Americans, especially Christians, employ to deflect and avoid engaging on the actual subject of racism. To avoid naming the harm caused, in detail, and coming up with a good faith plan to make restitution for said harm, white Americans will pull out all of the stops. And using red herrings or other distracting fallacies is just one of many ways whites will try to sidestep collective accountability.

When Dr. King wrote Letter From Birmingham Jail, the favorite avoidance tactic for white America was timing. Black Americans were demanding too much too soon after the Civil War, after Reconstruction, the white argument went. Negros needed to slow down, progress was being made too quickly for white sensibilities, everyone was going to be traumatized by too much change so quickly. As a result, there was no opening for a conversation about restitution, about black dignity and autonomy and white injustice and terrorism, because black people just WANTED TOO MUCH.

Now, in 2019, four hundred years after the first black slaves landed on this continent’s shores, have we not waited long enough? The old argument is irrelevant now, we have waited over three generations since the end of slavery. But, justice delayed is justice denied. White people have convinced themselves that our language is vulgar, so now they have a new reason to ignore our our pleas for justice, to say that our needs are questionable. We are still deemed wanting.  

Why is this, besides sheer white belligerence? When can we get to the actual substance of the matter, the harm caused and the restitution thereof? That is the conversation here.

Why are we still not allowed to have it?

How It Usually Happens

Step one: I call out white supremacy.

Step two: Instead of engaging with the subject at hand, you obsessively deride me over my language. Spend hours telling me my language is not acceptable. Tell me my words are harmful, disrespectful, and inappropriate for me to engage while frustrated. You refuse to let it go until…

Step three: I walk away.

Step four: Voila, you’ve won. The issue which I was attempting to draw attention to doesn’t even get mentioned.You’re too busy trying to protect the purity of your ears with your red herring deflections, and we don’t get around to fighting for justice for the oppressed.

Of course, any therapist worth their salt will tell you that this (evasion) is an effective method for getting people to shut up, but it is equally effective for getting someone to blow up.

Black anger, you may have noticed is NOT something white evangelicals are keen on. It is also something that gets black people killed STILL. Frankly, they don’t even allow the idea of it to exist in their minds or presence. Whiteness requires dehumanization of us. In order to even exist in the presence of white evangelicals, we must be calm, patient, kind, reserved, cool, concise, articulate. We are not allowed to be angry. Anger is a sin for the oppressed and  privilege reserved for the fully human. Anger is for white people. Not for us.

Watch Your Mouth, Boy

Black language (known as AAVE), much like black clothing in the 90s, and the timing of civil rights protests in the 50s and 60s, has become the favorite respectability goalpost for white Americans who refuse to engage in a good faith discussion about to how mitigate the harms of racism. Of course, this is hardly a debate about racism but rather a debate about restitution for the structural and systemic theft and destruction of black lives and bodies.

Respectability policing is a swift way to undermine the entire debate, which is exactly why white people use it. White righteousness, white holiness, white purity must be protected at all costs from vulgarity. That the two million lives massacred on the Transatlantic and the tens of millions of lives stolen from living bodies is actual vulgarity seems to be lost on them. Somehow the word Oreo is worse than slavery because it is newer, and must be stopped.

To police our language is to pull the rug, once again, out from under us. Whiteness refuses to without even acknowledging the bruises we carry from yesterday first. Because whiteness dictates reality - pain, suffering, love, legitimacy - to black America, they are able to cause harm and claim it was not in fact harm.

We know that since before the founding of the country, white comfort has been the utmost priority and respectability has been its primary defense. Speak properly. Dress properly. Engage properly. Protect white feelings sufficiently. And whatever we do, we do not make whiteness uncomfortable, because by it you will live or die. Unless you’ve counted the cost, which many black Americans have.

Black Americans have been asking you to have this same conversation with us since the beginning. From John Punch and Dred Scott, to Ida B. Wells and WEB Du Bois to today. And we can never seem to get the conversation past an introduction before it goes off the rails. Because, as whiteness tells us, there is something wrong with us. So wrong, in fact, that restitution cannot be made until we make ourselves right before God and whiteness, that we cannot discuss the terms until we correct our fundamental misunderstanding of our place in them. And, among one hundred thousand other demands, we must stop using the word Oreo.

Now What?

My ask here is twofold. First, stop policing the language of people of color when we are angry. And stand up to other white people who engage in this behavior. There are so many reasons why it’s horrifically abusive.

Second, stop making the conversation about racism and white guilt. What we need to talk about is restitution, not repentance. Don’t let your guilt lead you to policing the language of the unheard.

It’s white supremacy

If the average white evangelical today came across an enslaved black man in 1855 in field, yelling, “Fuck you!” at his slaver, I suspect they would be more offended by the language of enslaved man than the fact that he was a slave. I similarly suspect that most evangelicals reading this would disagree with my assessment, but I will argue that they are lying to themselves and to you.

Seeing as they are more offended by “fuck you” directed at a police officer, a judge, or the president, than they are about any of the grave injustices and atrocities happening today at the southern border, in Yemen, in Jordan, in Flint, I think my point remains valid.

Verbal abuse tossed at someone as dignified as a plantation owner would also lead them to mount a vigorous defense of the powerful. I am unaware of a time (and will gladly take receipts and be corrected!) when white American evangelicals have been more discomforted by abuse and trauma than they have by so-called “vulgar” language.

It’s entitled

When someone is in crisis, perhaps the most arrogant thing you can do is to hone in on correcting their language or their emotions. It shows aloofness, disrespect. It is completely oblivious to the pain being experienced by the other person.

It’s misplaced anger

Why do white people WANT to spend so much time policing our language? Especially white Christians. Why do they want so desperately to avoid the real conversation? All we are asking is for a fair accounting of the harm caused and a good faith effort to correct it. Why is a critical, in-depth conversation around restitution a bridge too far? Is it perhaps that they worry they themselves will be implicated? After all, black Americans are not asking for revenge. We are asking for justice. Why does that concept terrify them so much they can’t even discuss it? There is no reason to be angry about a discussion about bringing justice to a community that has been deprived of it.

In Other Words

The other day, Shannon Dingle asked folks on Twitter which word they would eliminate from the English language if given the choice. Honestly, questions like this always stress me out because white Americans seem in the habit of making sure to “cancel” all the AAVE terms that have been created in the previous 12 months. So I was reading through the replies, until someone wrote, “The n-word.”

With this essay already partially written (and fresh in my mind) and my (self) righteous indignation at white America firmly in place, I replied with something snarky along the lines of: “I’ll be keeping the word nigga, thanks!” and ran off.

To me, the word nigga is the most perfect object lesson for demonstrating the way white supremacy works. Whenever the subject of this loaded word comes up, Good Whites™ frequently respond with, “It’s such an awful term! No one should say it! Not white people, not black people, no one!”

This line, like the response to Oreo before, serves to hijack a conversation about something valid in order to avoid the real subject.

If white people can’t have it, they want to make sure no one can have it. I get an inordinate amount of joy from watching white people squirm as I get to explain to them that no, they cannot say “nigga,” and yes, black people can say it, and if you are really as “I’m not racist!” as you think you are, you wouldn’t be arguing with a black woman about what words black people are not allowed to say and don’t you see how policing my words is *cough* colonizing?

Yeah. That. It’s colonizing.

Yes, I’m DEFENDING the n-word here. Because it serves to highlight the fact that white people cannot stand it when they are not allowed to be the arbiters of morality for the rest of us, and they cannot stand it when they are not allowed in a given space. This space happens to be the word nigga. Or Oreo. Or ....take your pick from a million different words, and sentences, and tone of voice, and inflection, and, and, and…

White people who want to be allies need to do WAY better than policing black language.

LEARN TO FUCKING TRIAGE.

Many things are very important, but not vital but language is nowhere on either list. And when people are dying? Because people are literally dying. That is absolutely NOT the time to talk about language. When you start talking about language when I’m talking about saving lives, it shows you have no business being near me. Because I want to do the work, and you’re the irritating family member who won’t shut up, even though you have no understanding of the problem or how to fix it.

Conclusion

What is more vulgar? When I say the word “fuck,” or when babies in Yemen starve to death?

It’s insulting to those who are suffering to obsess over what kind of language the suffering use. Can you imagine if an EMT stopped providing aid because the person they were attempting to save said “fuck”? Can you imagine if this EMT began to lecture their patient about the importance of using uplifting, positive language, no matter how dire the situation?

All of this is I suspect, the result of whiteness historically assuming that it has the power to dictate the terms of our humanity to us. When you build an entire superpower on the idea that black and brown human beings are inherently inferior, you will inevitably build a god complex into the construct of whiteness.

White people, especially evangelicals, do all the time. It’s disrespectful and it’s time to stop. Let us have the fucking conversation.


Hey there! I’m Tori. I’m a single mama, a student, a writer, and educator. I hope you found my writing helpful. I’d love it if you would share this piece with your friends, families, colleagues, anti-racist groups, and co-conspirators. If you’re able, and you find my writing valuable, it means a lot to me if you are able to financially support my work. Daycare is expensive. :)
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