Everyday Language of White Racism

The former president of the American Anthropological Association, Jane Hill, has a fascinating new book, The Everyday Language of White Racism. She analyzes how whites’ racial oppression, white power and privilege, are daily created and reinforced in routine English. Central here is analysis of hundreds of cases of mock Spanish phrasing (“hasta la vista, baby; no problemo; knock back some cervazas, etc) and how widespread that is–and how it assumes racial stereotyping from the white racial frame about Mexicans, Mexican Americans, or other Latinos.

Hill reports, significantly, that almost no whites she has presented the material to are willing to see how such mock Spanish embeds racist stereotyping and framing.

She offers a probing and provocative analysis of whites’ use of other racist language, such as the insistence in Arizona on preserving the name of a mountain as “squaw peak,” “squaw” being a derogatory and racist term used by whites for Native American women some time now. There is also much language mocking by whites of so-called “black English” and of the speech of Asian Americans.

Hill offers excellent discussions of how and why whites come to define racist outbursts, such as those of Senator Trent Lott, comedian Michael Richards, and talk show host Don Imus, as only “gaffes” that do not reveal racist framing by whites who engage in such behavior. This research makes clear the central role of the English language in embedding and perpetuating the white framing and the system of racism that it defends.

Hill makes great points about how everyday racist language and “gaffes” contradict the arguments not only of white defenders of this still-racist society, but also of some critical race analysts who want to describe contemporary reality only as a “new racism.” In her view the widespread character of these examples of everyday racism, and the way they also get discussed obsessively and circulated extensively around the society, indicate that the old-fashioned racism of the past has not disappeared and been replaced by a new racism, not at all. At most, what is new is only a thin veneer of denial–as in white denial that mock Spanish and other language mocking is racist.

Research here takes notice too of the absences and omissions in what many whites do “say” in many cases. Much racist commentary now uses codewords that (wink wink) communicate racist ideas or inclinations without actually using the old racist words (for example, “lack of sense of humor” or “oversensitive”–or, even more concretely, “public housing, “inner city,” or “gangbangers”).

Hill is savvy about how much white defensive behavior operates when challenged, as in the cases of mock Spanish or the Arizona debate over the mountain peak. Whites have constantly denied that their perspective was racist and harmful, even as many people of color pointed out the harm and damage the mocking language caused. A key factor in how the white racial frame and systemic racism operate today is what Hernan Vera and I have called “social alexithymia,” the inability of whites to understand where people of color are coming from, the lack of cross-racial empathy. As Hill puts it, this lack of empathy

Involves a chain of reasoning that goes something like this: “I am a good and normal mainstream sort of White person. I am not a racist, because racists are bad and marginal people. Therefore, if you understood my words to be racist, you must be mistaken. I may have used language that would be racist in the mouth of a racist person, but if I did so, I was joking. If you understood my meaning to be racist, not only do you insult me, but you lack a sense of humor, and you are oversensitive.” Notice that this entire chain of reasoning makes the speaker the sole authority over what her worlds shall mean.

One central question today is: Why are whites so unwilling to listen to the views of those who are targeted daily by racism, even about the reality, character, harm, and pain of that everyday racism? The intensiveness and emotional scale of that denial seem to signal substantial proof of the continuing reality of everyday racism.


  1. Victor Ray

    Thanks Joe for the review. I am really looking forward to reading this book. I am often amazed at white refusal not only to acknowledge racism in language, but also denial of substantive facts.

  2. Thanks for the review. Sounds like an interesting read.

    I’ll be interested to read more about the defensiveness issue. For example, I have participated in discussion among anti-racists where the idea of calling It something else in order to facilitate discussion and not shut down conversation. Of course the “It” is racism (the “r-word”). I have generally resisted this notion, thinking folks are either willing to talk or not and sugar-coating will not make much difference.

    But I am willing to consider that I could be very wrong about this…

  3. Joe

    I am glad you find this brief overview useful. I strongly encourage you all to take a look at the book, as it is very sharp on things like language, and the quiet spaces between words that signal coded undertandings. The silences of racist language.

  4. Brent

    I think what this most demonstrates is the old saying in science: “If you look hard enough for evidence of something, you’ll find it.” What is ironic is that much of the codewording is the result of the political correctness movement, which merely silenced the rattles of snakes but did nothing to make them less dangerous, and caused significant resentment in whites who, perhaps imperfectly but with laudable intentions, try not to be racist in actions or words but who find the perceptual landscape an impregnable minefield and give up in frustration. The net effect is that many whites who might have supported efforts to defeat overt racism develop racist attitudes and perceptions of minority groups as “overly sensitive” or “lacking a sense of humor,” not to mention decreasing empathy toward those who most seek it.

    George Carlin did a marvelous routine on the linguistic landscape and white people’s frustrations with it, tracing the confusion felt by white people through assorted descriptives such as black, Negro, African or Afro-American, colored people, people of color, etc. I’ve personally always been somewhat puzzled by black, which is rarely accurate but especially off in describing those like Tiger Woods, Halle Berry, or our current President, and since when aren’t Native Americans colored? For that matter, even whites are more pinks or beiges, but then I doubt many guys would want to be called “that bunch of pink guys.”

    I’d also like to note that perhaps the author is stereotyping a bit as well; I for one do not think of “gangbangers” as being minorities, the original gangs were Irish and Italians in this country, and many people I’ve known in my life – and been a landlord to – in public housing were whites.

  5. Joe

    Brent, you may not think of “gangbangers” that way but some significant research in a multiracial residential community in Chicago is now showing that whites use “gangbangers” as code language for black and Latino youth. Many whites there and elsewhere are concerned about social desirability (“political correctness” is actually inaccurate as a term) in public settings. The key is to understand how thinly disguised codewords signal much deeper and extensive racialized thinking today.

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