Amy Harmon, New York Times, November 1, 2021
In California, a Black college freshman from the South is telling a story about his Latino friends from home when he is interrupted by a white classmate. “We say ‘Latinx’ here,” he recalls her saying, using a term he had not heard before, “because we respect trans people.”
In Philadelphia, Emma Blackson challenges her white neighbor’s assertion that Black children misbehave in school more than others. “It’s just my implicit bias,” the neighbor offers, saying that she had recently learned the phrase.
In Chicago, Kelsey O’Donnell, 31, wonders why colleagues and friends have suddenly started saying “BIPOC,” an acronym that encompasses individuals who are Black, Indigenous or other people of color. Where had it come from? “There was really nobody to ask,” says Ms. O’Donnell, who is white. “It was just, ‘This is what we say now.’”
Americans have always wrestled with language when it comes to describing race, with phrases and vocabulary changing to meet the struggles and values of the moment. But especially in the wake of protests for social justice in the summer of 2020, there is a heightened attention to this language, say scholars and activists, as some on the left try to advance changes in the culture through words.
“You can’t change what you can’t name,” Cathy Albisa, vice president of institutional and sectoral change at the racial justice nonprofit Race Forward, said.
For some people, though, the new lexicon has become a kind of inscrutable code, set at a frequency that only a narrow, highly educated slice of the country can understand, or even a political litmus test in which the answers continually change. Others feel disappointment, after so many protests last summer demanded far deeper change on issues like criminal justice and voting rights.
“I really believed America was having a reckoning when it came to race,” said Ms. Blackson, a Black graduate student in epidemiology who has expressed her disillusionment on Twitter. “So far it’s been a lot of words.”
Unsurprisingly, the language itself has become contested, especially by conservatives who have leveraged discomfort with the new vocabulary to energize their base of white voters, referring to it as “wokespeak.” One conservative think tank circulated a list of words — including “microaggressions” and “Black Lives Matter” — that it said could alert parents that what has been labeled “Critical Race Theory” is being taught in their children’s schools.
The new language extends beyond race, adding phrases and introducing ideas that are new to many Americans. Gender-neutral terms like “Latinx,” for people of Latin American descent, “they/them” pronouns that refer to a single person, and “birthing parent” or “pregnant people” instead of “mother,” to be inclusive of trans people, are also gaining traction.
Some activists defend the focus on language, saying that the way people use words is not mere symbolism but is necessary to achieving justice.
“Saying something like, ‘Black people are less likely to get a loan from the bank,’ instead of saying, ‘Banks are less likely to give loans to Black people,’ might feel like it’s just me wording it differently,” Rashad Robinson, president of the racial justice organization Color of Change, said. “But ‘Black people are less likely to get a loan from the bank’ makes people ask themselves, ‘What’s wrong with Black people? Let’s get them financial literacy programs.’ The other way is saying, ‘What’s wrong with the banks?’”
Mr. Robinson added, “When you’ve been on the margin, being able to claim a language and a narrative and a set of words to express yourself is incredibly important.”
Still, some other self-identified liberals who said they care deeply about social justice feel uncomfortable with some of the changes and the pressure that can be associated with them.
Ms. O’Donnell of Chicago said that, especially when she is among other white, college-educated liberals, “I’m exhausted by the constant need to be wary or you’ll instantly be labeled racist or anti-trans.”
Many of the words surfacing in today’s language debates are not new.
“Implicit bias” traces to the work of psychologists in the 1990s, when the field began to document the subconscious associations that cause people to harbor stereotypes. The effort to substitute “enslaved people” for “slaves” has been long advocated by many Black academics to emphasize the violence that defined American slavery and the humanity of those subjected to it, said Anne Charity Hudley, a linguist at Stanford.
In a reflection of its surging popularity, “BIPOC” (pronounced “bye-pock”) received its first Merriam-Webster dictionary entry this year, though a number of linguists said they were not sure how the term emerged.
One reason BIPOC has engendered both backlash and bewilderment, said Nicole Holliday, a linguist at the University of Pennsylvania, is because it seems to be an example of “top-down language reform.” Widely shared over social media last year, its champions have said it is intended to emphasize the severity of racial injustice on Black and Indigenous people. But few Black or Indigenous people use it, language scholars say.
In a national poll conducted by Ipsos for The New York Times, more than twice as many white Democrats said they felt “very favorably” toward “BIPOC” as Americans who identify as any of the nonwhite racial categories it encompasses.
In “Why BIPOC Fails,” an essay in a recent issue of the Virginia Law Review, Meera Deo, a sociologist and professor at Southwestern Law School, notes that the term can end up being “confusing” or “misleading.”
The acronym, which was widely adopted only in the last year or so, is often misread as meaning “bisexual people of color.” Asian and Latino Americans are often left to wonder whether they are covered by the “POC” part of the acronym.
Racial justice activists have also long distinguished “equality” from “equity,” but the latter has filtered into the mainstream more recently. Supporters of the word say that it is preferable to “equality,” which they argue suggests that equal treatment is sufficient to achieve fair outcomes — a premise they maintain disregards built-in disadvantages caused by past and present discrimination, and the need for policies to counteract them.
The terms can seem to change swiftly too. Some scholars are now arguing that “implicit bias” should be replaced with “complicit bias,” saying that the former has been used as a kind of exoneration from the biases one holds rather than a call to address them.
Whether using certain words is an indication of a willingness to upend the traditions that reinforce social inequalities, however, is unclear. For white liberals especially, “there is social pressure to engage with these words in the social moment,” Dr. Hudley said. “They see this as part of what it means to be an educated white person in certain places and spaces, whether they agree with it or not.”