Who gets to define terms?

Protests following the George Floyd killing in Minneapolis have continued across America and around the world protests of solidarity also continue unabated. I don’t intend to say anything about the specific protests here. But those protests have also led to various discussions taking place. Newspaper articles have been penned, blogs have been written and Twitter is awash (as ever) with opinions.

The internet being what it is, nuance is difficult. The available mediums make it hard to accurately convey nuance and it is similarly difficult for others to pick up. The nature of the beast is that things have a habit of becoming incredibly binary and, once they do, more than a little aggressive. Many seem more interested in bludgeoning others into agreement (no “side” or group have a monopoly on that). Irrespective of whether we agree or not, it would seem wise to at least engage with all views and parties in the discussion, not just those with whom we agree or that happen to look like us.

In response to some of the discussions that I have seen, I wrote a Twitter thread on the use of the term ‘white privilege’. You can read that here. My main point in that thread was not to say there is no difference between the white and BAME experience. I don’t think that. Nor was my point that what is often termed ‘white privilege’ doesn’t exist. My point was simply about how that term can be heard. If the goal is to help people understand the issues of systemic racism that do exist, and the struggles that are faced inherently as BAME people that white people – by virtue of their skin colour – won’t face, that might not be the best term.

That is usually met, by those who disagree, with two responses. First, that ‘white privilege’ does not mean what many people hear by that term. Second, there is a history of white people wanting to control the language that is used and this is the term that BAME thinkers have come to use for reasons they think best.

With respect to the first, it is true the term does not mean that nobody else has had a hard life. It is simply attempting to convey that there are issues faced by BAME people that most white people do not have to countenance and with which they will never contend. And, for the avoidance of any doubt, that is demonstrably and evidently true. However, there are those who do not use the term in that way and who do want to argue that all white people, simply by virtue of their skin colour, are more privileged than any other BAME people. This may not be what the term was meant to mean, nor what most mean when they use it, but it is certainly what some say. Regardless, the issue being raised is not what is intended by the term, it is specifically what is heard when the term is employed. If we are trying to persuade others to see things as we do, the way the terms we use are heard surely matters. The term may have an intended meaning, but if it is lost on the hearer, is it not possible it might prove less helpful than we think?

Regarding the second argument, this is not an attempt to control the language that others use. If people want to continue to use the term ‘white privilege’ they are free to do so. If they are convinced that is the best term to use that most accurately conveys what they mean, that is indeed their prerogative to keep using it. Ironically, however, it is those who insist that these are the ‘right terms’ to use who are the ones who are trying to control language. I remember being in a discussion with somebody who took me to task for the phrase ‘culture clash’. They insisted it had bad connotations and an unhelpful history. When I pointed out that Don Letts – the black film director and musician – not only used the term but named his 6 Music show Don Letts’ Culture Clash Radio, I was told, ‘well, he probably shouldn’t use the term either.’ The person telling me this was white. Personally, I think people should be free to use whatever terminology they want.

Nevertheless, if our intention is to persuade others that what we mean is true, why would we camp out on a phrase so open to misinterpretation and that is frequently misheard as saying something altogether different? People may use whatever language they choose to use and it is not for the rest of us to dictate the kinds of words that they can use. But it is also the case that, in choosing the language that we do, we cannot dictate how everybody else must hear it. To do that is to enter the world of Humpty Dumpty:

‘I don’t know what you mean by “glory”,’ Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. ‘Of course you don’t — till I tell you. I meant “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!”‘

‘But “glory” doesn’t mean “a nice knock-down argument”,’ Alice objected.

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’

Lewis Carol, Through the Looking Glass

We can all choose to use words and phrases however we please. I can’t insist that you use my preferred terms and you can’t insist that I use yours. We are free to use whatever language we like. But, by the same token, we can’t insist others hear what we are saying when we say it. The language we use is entirely our prerogative, but what is heard by it is outside of our control. It strikes me, if the goal is understanding and persuasion, we do well to consider what is heard as much as what is actually said and intended.

Let me give an example. Some while ago now, I wrote an blog post about a piece of Christian advertising that I thought was very clumsy (as best) and was bound to be misheard. It was the kind of thing that would cause issues for us locally working in our particular context. You can read that here. It was not seen as a problem by anybody for me to point out how that language will be badly misheard in our community. Most people recognised – despite how badly this all came across – that nobody intended to convey what it did. But what was intended really didn’t have any great impact on how it was heard by many and, equally, on those who would find it offensive. And the gospel ramifications of all that were serious.

If it is legitimate to point out that intending to say one thing will be heard as saying something particularly terrible when it comes to majority white people and organisations using terms and phrases about BAME people, there shouldn’t be any reason why it is problematic to point out that majority white people (despite what is intended) might hear certain other problematic things when BAME people employ their chosen terms and phrases too. It feels like special pleading – if not a touch racist – to say that the intentions of white people are irrelevant but what is heard is what matters whilst the intentions of BAME people is all that matters and how what they say is heard doesn’t matter at all.

The issues of racism still exist. Systemic, institutional and personal racism abound. And it seems to me, the BAME experience of life is going to be different to that of white people. There are issues that will be faced by BAME people that white folks simply do not face in their everyday lives. What a shame if that legitimate point gets lost on those who most need to hear it because of our chosen terminology.