On the Importance of Words


(Kyla Smith • The Student Life)

The words ‘racist’ and ‘racism’ are powerful. They have been hurled with desperate force by the people whom societal structures disadvantage against the architects of those very structures themselves. These words carry centuries of hatred and violence in their syllables; they communicate histories in their connotations. To speak these words is to access the full breadth of their meanings. When we accuse someone of racism, we tie them to this body of history. We say what we mean. We must say what we mean.

It is to this end that, above all else, words themselves must be precise. Their positions in our language must be clear. An understanding of the ways in which one word relates to certain other words must be accurate. Words must be precise in order to allow room for discourse.

When we say what we mean, we communicate our thoughts effectively, concisely, and powerfully. In fighting for social justice, we must be able to defeat ideas; in order to defeat ideas, our words can never come under attack.

We’re fighting from a position of subjugation. We’ll be cut no breaks. We’ll be attacked on every front for every reason. But, a truth is a truth. The Church’s branding of Galileo as a heretic did nothing to prevent the earth from revolving around the sun. If our arguments are sound and our beliefs true, we cannot lose.

Our words must be precise, carefully chosen, and powerful. This is how we say what we mean. This is how we defeat ideas. This is how we bring about change.

Recently, the definition of racism has shifted. The word is narrowing in scope. It’s a slow, seductive shift — a dangerous shift. Racism is now succinctly defined as the confluence of power and prejudice. This is what we mean when we say racism now. This is what we mean when we call someone racist.

In this shift, something of the impossible mechanism that gave the words their power is lost. There already existed a phrase for racism as it is understood in modern sociological contexts — ‘institutional racism.’ To wit, racism which is enacted upon individuals not by other individuals but by institutions.

The phrase amplified the horror of racism to the level of institutions. The words were complimentary. The body of history whose blood gave the word ‘racism’ its full semantics was superimposed on the social and political institutions to which we were all beholden. Racism and racist still remained in the lexicon, still powerful, because the connotations they carried were being modified — rather than subsumed.

Now, racism stands where institutional racism stood. And now, in the space where racism lay, there exists a hollow in our language. When the scope of a word narrows, our ability to express thoughts and feelings diminishes. Speakers must resort to using synonyms, which can only imperfectly stand in for the original word.

The modern definition precludes a person of color from being racist. I have been called a “chink” hundreds of times in my life. To me, all the people who wielded that word were racists, but I have been told that only those in power who called me chink were racists.

As for the others, the people of color who called me chink — they were ‘prejudiced.’ Yes, I have been told, they were prejudiced against you and they expressed it, a disgusting prejudice, a shameful prejudice. But racist? No.

The word ‘prejudiced’ has filled the linguistic space where ‘racist’ once had. It contains none of the same history, the power, the hurt, or the evil. Are we to say that these two words mean the same thing? Is the hurling of an accusation of mere prejudice as cathartic as denouncing someone as a racist?

Words have power. It is important we don’t dilute their force, either through overuse or through re-definition. Otherwise, we risk attenuating our listeners’ ears to the amplitude of our voices. We risk training them to automatically switch off and ignore us when they hear certain words or phrases. We risk diminishing returns on protest, on righteous outrage.

We have to say what we mean, every time. There are so many words in this language and even more in other languages. Each of these words contains so much power, refers to so much, means so much. Every word can do work.

When we accuse someone of fascism, we invoke the brutal regime of Mussolini, the deaths, the political purges, the media silence. All those connotations contained in a single word. There is historicity in “fascist,” “fascism.”

It’s more dramatic and effective to unite in a singular condemnation of fascism than to spread the impact of the word thin over many others. Calling someone a fascist is often a shortcut. Do they support massive spending in the military in preparation for an imaginary war on the horizon? Call them warmongers, paranoid, irrationally aggressive. Do they see liberal democracy as a failed experiment? Call them woefully ignorant, defeatist, dangerously Machiavellian. When they support fascism in its full connotative capacity, call them fascist.

The dilution of words limits the power of our voices. When we call someone a white supremacist, we invoke crosses set alight on suburban lawns and bodies swinging from trees. What are we to make of a real-life Klansman if we have called out so many white supremacists already? What are we to make of the body, our beautiful technicolor bodies, if we begin to speak only in terms of “bodies of color” as capitalism has so ruthlessly and efficiently done for us in the past?

There are an infinity of terms and phrases which can be created and made to work for our cause. These phrases can be far more eloquent, powerful, and haunting than anything ever learned in a textbook or read on the page. Shall we resort so consistently to the same hundred-word lexicon and talk ourselves into static?

Intersectionality, Euro-centricity, the prison-industrial complex, imperialism, white hegemony, perpetuating violence, interlocking systems of domination, emotional labor. We have become lost in the academic wasteland of our own deconstruction. It is not enough to know that these concepts and systems exist. It is not enough to name them and move forward. We have become unmoored from the reason we seek social justice at all: to create a world where a person is valued as a person. White supremacy, male fragility, inclusivity, marginalized communities, trans- exclusionary feminism, cultural appropriation. Our words are losing their power.

We have been silenced for so long. Now our voices grow louder. We are speaking at last. People are listening to our words.

We must say what we mean.


This essay was first published on Facebook and, in the interest of faithful representation, I have decided to publish it in much the same state, with some copy editing. There are several points I would like to address or clarify.

1. Concerning racism/racist in particular.

The essay begins with the introduction of the words “racism” and “racist” as an example to illustrate the phenomenon under discussion; namely, that a word’s changing in scope has a deleterious effect on one’s ability to express their ideas. The essay is not meant as solely a discussion of racism. I chose to lead with these words because they could immediately be recognized as words of power.

2. Language change.

It is true that all languages change — constantly, necessarily, unstoppably. Languages change at every level, from grammatical all the way down to orthographical. However, this essay does not ascribe power to words on the basis of their constancy but rather of their connotation. That is to say: words are important and powerful not because their meanings stay the same, but rather because their meanings are theirs alone. No other word can do what the word fascist does as well as fascist.

3. What is the benefit of speaking precisely?

Social justice can be exogenously imposed on an unwilling population (the National Guard at Little Rock) or endogenously achieved (the concept of sanctuary). The former is difficult, divisive, and often succeeds in merely masking injustice rather than stamping it out. The latter is organic, easily and swiftly implemented, and only grows stronger under pressure. Speaking precisely allows for the clear and effective communication of beliefs. This communication, in turn, allows for the changing of minds. Convince a broad swath of apathetic citizens of the importance and urgency of social justice; convince them to take action, to protest, to vote. This is what we mean when we say build a movement.

Tom Lin PO ’18 is an English major from New York City. He has a cat named Breakfast and a dog named Argo.

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