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Reconciled to Jargon

Posted on 04 April 2011 by Barbara Beckwith (1)

Several years ago, when I sat on the diversity committee of the National Writers Union, we asked anyone attending our caucus to introduce him or herself as either a “person of color,” an LGBT person, a person with a disability — or an ally of one or all of the above.

I happily introduced myself as white, straight, “temporarily able-bodied,” and as an ally to all three of what we called “target groups.” But our in-group language turned some people off. Several refused to label themselves: they wanted to just sit and observe. Our caucus organizers insisted. Those otherwise sympathetic attendees never came to another meeting. Accusations of “nomenclature puritanism” and “oppression competitivness” followed. Mutual respect went down the drain. Ever since, I’ve been leery of jargon.

Now, as I try to understand persistent racial inequality in the U.S., I find myself reading dense books that are full of in-group language. The authors mix words I know in mystifying combinations like “racial touristing,” “aversive racism,” or “the racialized other.” They also create “neologisms” — academic lingo for new words such as ¬†“positionality,” interiority,” “overprivilege” or “cyberwhitening.” My computer’s spell checker flags each of these as not words — seems that getting a PhD these days requires thinking up new words as well as new ideas. ¬†

Ordinarily, I’d bypass books that use such terminology. And yet, I’ve been hanging in there: racism is too important to turn away from just because those who study it most closely use language that turns me off.

After a year of reading brain-straining books, however, I looked forward to an upcoming conference aimed at grassroots anti-racist people – my type of folks. But even then, confusing codewords cropped up. Take the conference title: “White Privilege,” a term that was once code for KKK attitudes: anti-racists now use it to name advantages for some that should be rights for all.

Some workshop titles with unfamiliar terms like microaggression, code-switching, and nadanolization, intimidated me. But I attended them anyway and did learn a lot. I even came home with a t-shirt that I chose for its bright blue color, tolerating its jargony saying on the back: “Interrogate your hidden assumptions.”

In fact, I’m finding that yes, jargon can be alienating, but it can also be catching. I’m starting to use it myself. I now co-lead an adult education course that talks of “systemic white privilege” as the underlying cause of racial inequality. To make that abstract idea real, we use an image from anti-racist educator Peggy McIntosh, of an invisible knapsack that gives white people, wherever they go, assumed credibility in intelligence, honesty, beauty, and access to people in power.

As I get comfortable with anti-racist terminology, I’m sometimes caught up short. Like the time I was shoveling snow with my neighbor and friend, who knows about my class. As we toss shovels full of snow from street to yard, the conversation turns to race. “I can’t stand it when folks say Black people can’t be racist,” he says. “Black people can’t be racist because they lack institutional power? That’s bunk.”

I am taken aback. He’s African American, and I take his perspective seriously. I’m one of the folks he’s objecting to.

I frankly admit that in my class, I use the definition of racism that’s currently prevalent in anti-racist circles: racism = race prejudice plus power. I try to defend the concept that without the backing of significant institutionalized power to oppress, prejudice is just prejudice, not racism. But he’s not having it, and I realize that I’m arguing for a cutting-edge theory that makes so much sense to those who use it, but which makes no sense to almost everybody else.

I’ve since tried to avoid anti-racist terminology that I’d gotten used to using — trigger words, target groups, code-switching, matrix of domination — but which elicits from most people a “huh?”

Jargon that’s grounded in the day-to-day is still okay by me. Take “gate-keeping,” a phrase that’s widespread in anti-racist circles. Yes, it’s jargon, but at least I can picture a gate, and a person who latches it or unlatches it. The metaphor works for me. It helps me see how people like myself have power to keep gates to closed to people unlike ourselves or to open those gates of opportunity to everyone – in our workplaces, our schools, or our neighborhoods.

I particularly welcome fresh images that give me new perspectives. W.E.B. Dubois’ visionary “double consciousness…. the sense of always looking at oneself through the eyes of others” shows me what it means to be Black in America. Ralph Ellison’s metaphor of the “invisible man” — “because people refuse to see me” — shifts my outlook, as well. And when Beverly Daniel Tatum describes “cultural racism” as an unhealthy fog that we — people of all colors –can’t see but we breathe in daily, I get her point.

So the next time I come up against a catchphrase, for instance “the problem is not Black underprivilege, but white overprivilege,” I’ll ignore my spell checker’s ¬†irritation, and my own. Instead, I’ll look anew at what’s right, what’s wrong, and what we need to change.

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