Reflections on terminology and shifting the power of language

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Photo Credit: Ruperto Miller, Flickr, public domain

Words matter, even, and perhaps especially in moments of crisis. At such times, words provide us with a conceptual framework to understand the things happening around us. Choose words that are inadequate to the moment, or fail to capture its gravity, and you run the risk of letting down your guard in the face of chaos. Choose words that are hyperbolic or extreme, and you risk becoming like the boy who cried wolf or someone more interested in social media clicks than enlightenment.

As such, it’s essential to use words as precisely as possible. No, not every politician with whom you disagree, even when they do truly horrible things, is a fascist, let alone a Nazi; and they are almost certainly not the literal equivalent of Hitler. On the other side, calling everyone who believes in government-guaranteed health care a Stalinist is an abuse of language (and history) that obscures far more than it illuminates. …

Whiteness has always followed a very predictable playbook

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Photo credit: Marco Verch, Flickr, Creative Commons License 2.0

It happens every time. Something awful transpires — something that indicates the venality of the nation’s leaders or certain of its people — and we are treated to the same refrain by swaths of the newly-shocked: namely, “This isn’t the America we know.”

It happened after Hurricane Katrina when hundreds of thousands of mostly Black people were left to fend for themselves or die in New Orleans. Although social media wasn’t a thing yet — this was 2005, when the Earth was young— you could still hear the surprise from commentators in mainstream media, on websites, and via e-mail listservs.

“How could this happen in our country?” the voices intoned. People stranded on rooftops, waiting for rescue from helicopters that in many cases never came. Thousands of people gathered without food or water in the Superdome or Convention Center, their government at all levels — federal, state, and local — having failed to protect them. …

No peace without justice, no reconciliation without truth

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Image by Scott Lum, Flickr, Creative Commons License

For people who savor calling others snowflakes, Trump supporters certainly are a delicate bunch. And to hear many tell it, we should treat them as such, with understanding and compassion, giving them time to work out their sadness at the defeat of their Emperor God.

Calls for this kind of forbearance have filled the airwaves and op-ed pages since the election. Don’t gloat, they tell us. Be good winners, they implore. Reach out to at least one Trump supporter and try to engage in productive dialogue, comes the advice of political scientist Ian Bremmer.

Do it for the sake of unity or in the name of healing. …

No matter the outcome, please remember these words

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Photo by Keith Helfrich on Unsplash

Forget the polls for a minute. Forget the punditry. Forget the campaign hype that seeks to tell us what we want to hear or what the other side wishes to believe. The fact is, we don’t know for sure how this is going to turn out.

I can sketch out very plausible scenarios by which Joe Biden wins in a rout, but also a few, only slightly less convincing, where Donald Trump squeezes out another victory in the electoral college, while, of course, losing the popular vote handily. Such is the lasting force of an institution created by those who sought to maximize the power of smaller states dependent on human bondage and trafficking. …

Those who deny its existence might as well deny inertia

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Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Newton’s First Law holds that objects in motion tend to remain in motion unless acted upon by another force. We understand this as a description of inertia, and readily see how it applies to the physical universe. We slide a book across a table, for instance, understanding that it will only stop moving when it falls to the floor or when the friction created between the upward force of the table and downward force of gravity is sufficient to bring its motion to a halt.

But the concept of inertia applies not merely to the physical world. It also applies to the socio-economic world and the forward motion of historical events. Life is not a series of single-day occurrences, followed by a re-set to the beginning, like a video game. Instead, that which happens today will impact that which happens tomorrow, and so on. Indeed, the inertia of history lasts far longer than that of the book sliding across the table. Historical events and patterns leave legacies. …

Our national ideology magnified the COVID crisis — abandoning it is our only hope now

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Image: AK Rockefeller, Flickr, Creative Commons ShareAlike License 2.0

As the novel coronavirus continues to tear through America, reaching new daily highs for infections and stretching hospital capacity across the country, one thing is undeniable: COVID-19 was never the biggest problem. We were. This virus, like most, is opportunistic. It takes advantage of pre-existing conditions. And Americanism is the world’s ultimate co-morbidity.

There is a reason 130,000-plus have died here, far more than anywhere else on Earth. There is a reason the United States continues to suffer under the weight of the pandemic, long after it subsided in most of the industrialized world. There is a reason Americans are currently barred from traveling to most of Europe. And in each case, the reasons are the same: we are a failed state, beholden to a set of cultural values that make us more vulnerable, and more dangerous than anyone else. …

Statues, symbols, and the stories we tell (and don’t)

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

Although I have always loved learning about history — and possibly because of this fact — I have never been a fan of statues. Even as a child, I thought they were odd totems to the past, lacking any substantive information that would allow those gazing upon them to make much sense of what they represented.

As I got older, I liked them even less. As a Southerner, I came to view statues as tributes to horrible people who fought to maintain an evil system of human bondage — ego-soothing security blankets for racist losers who produced them not to honor history but to fabricate it. Because in the South, that’s mostly what they were. …

We really need some answers here

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Image: Timothy Fenn, Flickr, CC License 2.0

Systemic racism. It’s a concept we’ve been hearing a lot about lately, and while most Black folks believe it to be a persistent reality, many whites seem uncertain. Others flatly reject the idea, including key figures in the Trump administration who have denied its existence when asked about it in the wake of the current uprising.

If you find yourself in the skeptic camp, I have some questions for you, because I am curious as to your thought process.

We’ll start with an easy one.

Question #1:

Do you think systemic racism was ever a thing in America, such that it profoundly affected the opportunity structure, and skewed the distribution of economic resources in a way that generally favored whites and disfavored Blacks? Assuming you answered yes to that question — because if you said no, you need to re-take 8th grade history, not spend your time here —…

…and that’s the problem we have to confront

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Image, WallpapersWide

Recently, I had the chance to re-watch Django Unchained: Quentin Tarantino’s slavery revenge film. And while I was reminded of the things I had liked about the movie — truthfully, what’s not to like about the killing of racist kidnappers? — it also made me remember one thing I hadn’t. It’s something that often bothers me whenever Hollywood portrays racists, like the slaveowner, Monsieur Candie, played by Leonardo DiCaprio.

Namely, as with other race-themed films, Django relies far too heavily on a portrayal of white racists as barely literate, as if their bigotry were simply the product of uneducated stupidity manifested by people with bad dentition. …

Understanding why your intentions aren’t the point

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Image: Sutha Kamal, Flickr, CC license, with apologies to this guy, who I’m sure is not shrugging off racism in this picture

By now, we all know the routine.

Someone says or does something incredibly racist, gets called out for it, and then insists that we took them out of context, or are overreacting. After all, they assure us, they have black friends, or once dated an Asian girl, or have an adopted child from Guatemala, or some such thing — so they can’t possibly be racist. No, indeed, not a racist bone in their bodies. And as we all know, racism is a skeletal condition.

If you were offended by whatever they said or did, that’s only because you’re too sensitive. …


Tim Wise

I’m an antiracism educator/author. My latest book is Dispatches from the Race War (City Lights, December 2020). I post audio at

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