A letter to White People on ownership of language

Dear White People,

Stop using damn slurs.

Stop saying n****r; stop saying p*ki; stop saying f****t; stop using any slur applicable to a demographic that isn’t your own. It’s nasty, and it’s degrading – not only to those you target your hate speech towards, but also to yourself: you tarnish your character each time these words pass your lips.

“But why is this the case?” you might ask. “Why CAN’T I say it?”

To this, I respond: Why would you want to use the same words hurled – with aim of dehumanisation – at minority groups during abhorred events, such as the Trans-Atlantic African Slave Trade, or the genocide of Australia’s Aboriginals? When you use this derogatory language, still, knowing of these historic tragedies, you condone – to some extent – this systematic abuse of those who do not look or act exactly as you do.

And, while casual use of slurs should therefore be an absolute no-no in your everyday conversation, within an academic context – admittedly – there does ostensibly appear to be more so of a grey area – especially when quoting from literature of significance within this context, such as Beecher-Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, or Walker’s “The Color Purple”.

However, the issue with quoting the N-word or any other slur in a classroom situation, is that it normalises this language. In this manner, its easier assimilation into everyday speech is enabled, without first ensuring a thorough understanding or appreciation for the seriousness of each words’ origin by the audience. It’s also notoriously difficult to trust another’s assurance on their understanding of any issue, when we so often overestimate our own abilities, as evidenced via the Dunning-Kruger effect. As such, the safest bet is for you to not use this language at all, and to censor words in your speech where necessary when referencing something.

Wisdom of the Hands: the peak of mount stupid.

“But why do persecuted groups still get to say it (whatever it may be) when I can’t?” may well be your next question.

The answer is simple: they can’t – at least, not unless they belong to the demographic the slur’s targeted towards. The false perception that any one oppressed group can legitimately use slurs against another oppressed group perpetuates the idea that only the White Heterosexual Male is capable of tyranny. Chinese concentration camps containing Uyghurs, and the four African countries where the LGBT is still punishable by death exemplify how untrue this is.

(Regarding race specifically, the allowance of non-whites to utilise any racial slur while still disallowing whites this immunity would also only enhance the false idea that there are only two racial identities that matter: white and non-white.)

However, this does not mean to say that these tainted words should be entirely banned from all our vocabularies.

While continued use of the N-word in black households, for example, remains a contentious issue (only two thirds of black people in the US admitted to using the word in the last five years), it must be said that trauma is dealt with in different ways per person. Generational trauma is included in this. One such method of coping is through the reclamation of certain words to have them become synonymous with ideas of brotherhood and empowerment – as seen through the frequent use of this particular slur in rap by the black community, and by slut-shamed women’s unabashed embrace of misogynistic terms as declarations of their sexual power.

“I understand all this, but hearing the N-word in music still makes me feel uncomfortable”: this is a decidedly more nuanced White take on the issue of censorship.

If this resonates with you, you’re not alone in the slightest; so many people I know, both friends and family, feel this too. And it’s unfortunate, because your discomfort will limit your musical palette massively – which IS a tragedy when albums like Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp A Butterfly” exist.

Kendrick Lamar’s Grammy-award winning ‘i’ from album “To Pimp A Butterfly”

It also indicates a level of understanding that slurs are powerful, and can pack a punch as potent as any hit to the stomach. Beyond even this, it demonstrates an awareness that the origins of these words stem from marginalisation for which your race is largely responsible: your ‘discomfort’ is in fact guilt, which is the manifestation of your generational trauma. As such, it’s important to recognise that you personally are not responsible for the actions of your ancestors; it is merely your job to acknowledge the abuse that went on, and to work towards ensuring its discontinuation as best as you can.

However, though all generational trauma is undoubtedly serious, it must be said that any Caucasian generational trauma absolutely pales in comparison with that of other ethnicities. This is especially true when comparing the white experience against the Native Americans’, whose youth are 3.5 times more likely than any other group to commit suicide because of issues stemming back to forcible removal from their land by white European settlers. This stark contrast between levels of trauma borne is further exacerbated when you look at how whitewashed our teaching is: there is little to no emphasis on the impacts of colonialism on Britain’s colonies; we also focus on the history of slavery in the US rather than in our own country, as if it never existed.

As such, while discomfort at hearing slurs used by the appropriate demographics is unfortunate, it’s very much a personal problem of the listener – and a minor one at that in the grand scheme of things. You really have no business policing the vocabulary of minority groups we already have oppressed for so long.

One final note: it isn’t enough to just not use slurs. Your silence in the company of those who do use them makes you implicit in the continuation of systematic abuse against persecuted groups: you must be anti-slur. Tragic though it is, your voice will always carry waves of thought much further than POC’s and the LGBT’s in conversations on race and queerphobia.

Please, use your voice to contribute to a better informed world.

Yours Sincerely,
A fellow white person

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