Saying It Doesn’t Make It So

Saying It Doesn’t Make It So

“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 Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

There’s an article that I’m seeing a lot on my timeline just lately titled All white people are inherently white supremacists. Now, I have a knee-jerk reaction to generalization in all forms which is to assume that there are holes in the argument.

In this case, what stands out first and foremost is that it is the old “all men are inherently rapists” trope, recast in terms of race.

But there’s a little twist in this article: the author tells us that when they say supremacist they don’t mean quite what the dictionary tells you the word means, what everybody who hasn’t read the article would assume it means.

No, in this article a supremacist is not someone who advocates for the superiority of a particular group; it is someone who benefits from the advantaged status of that group. In my book (despite the denial of the author) they are talking about privilege.

Sorry, but you don’t get to redefine such a loaded word just because it suits your desire for an attention-grabbing headline. There are already words and phrases in existence that carry the meaning you want, unless you just intend to provoke and incite a reaction.

It’s disingenuous of the author: the redefinition of the word is calculated to undermine the position of anybody asserting that they are not a white supremacist. And because it’s about race, that touchiest of subjects, especially in the US, people are reluctant to call “bullshit” lest they incur the righteous wrath of those who take it all at face value.

The essence of this piece is to imply that all white people are the same: at heart they are indistinguishable from the shaven-headed neo-Nazis and KKK members who proclaim the primacy of the “white race”. I call bullshit.

There’s a particular statement in the article, “All white people […] won’t challenge and disagree with genocide, police brutality, the prison industrial complex, gentrification, the hypersexualization of young Black girls, the criminalization of young Black boys.”

That’s simply not true. In fact I find it hard to credit that more than a handful of white people would agree with those things. But according to the author all white people “are inherently racist” and by implication support the oppression and subjugation of other races.

I must admit I’ve been surprised by the support shown for this deeply flawed article with its sweeping generalizations and unsupported, easily refutable claims. It’s the same sort of polemic as Trump’s attacks on Mexican immigrants in that it caters to the prejudices and insecurities of a particular audience.

But here’s the thing: just because the author believes in what they wrote, just because there are published words on a page does not make it true. I know what a supremacist is, and claiming it means something else just doesn’t hold water. If you want to play games with language, you’ve got to do a damn sight better than that.

8 thoughts on “Saying It Doesn’t Make It So

  1. I think I said, “Mmhmm, exactly so” about 15 times reading your article. Thank you, Alex.

    I will say that, in the States, white males in particular seem to have an innate privilege. As a white female who has lived in predominantly colored communities and in predominantly Caucasian communities, I have seen it play out many times.

    So thank you for calling attention to sweeping generalities.

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    1. Yes, privilege in all its manifestations is very real, as is the harm it causes. I’m not dismissing the genuine anger that the author obviously feels, and I accept that my experience of life is very different and almost certainly less dangerous, but that doesn’t mean I’m any more willing than they are to accept such words aimed in my general direction.

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  2. As a white woman, I have privilege, its not something I could drop or deny if I wanted. As I am human, I have biases, some I notice, try to look at them objectively, and hope they don’t influence my behavior (acting with prejudice) towards other people. i’m sure i dont notice some bias because its ingrained. I can say without a doubt though, I’m not a white supremacist, and blanket statements like that for an entire group… smh. Their prejudice/bias is showing.

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  3. It’s just so incredibly, incredibly dangerous to set an argumentative standard that “I get to make words mean whatever I want them to mean and then declare that an entire demographic of people is, inherently, whatever I say those words mean, and there is no possible refutation.”

    What groups of people does she think are going to be considered magically exempt from having that standard applied to them by somebody more talented at manipulating language? Hers? History suggests otherwise.

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    1. I was discussing the article this morning, and somebody who knows the author told me that among people who make a study of race issues it is normal practice to use the term “supremacist” in the sense it appeared in the article. It seems that quite a few people had not considered how it would come across to people in general, although how they could be unaware of the word’s strong negative connotations is hard to fathom. It still doesn’t explain or excuse the lazy generalities, and still raises the question of whether the intention was to provoke an angry response that could then be (deliberately?) misconstrued as an racially-motivated attack on the author. Or perhaps, giving the benefit of the doubt, it was for the most part an expression of anger and frustration from somebody who has witnessed and experienced far too much injustice.

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      1. It’s not just academic vs. widely understood use of “white supremacist,” though (although, I’m sorry, the way she’s using it reduces it to near meaninglessness even so, and THAT is its own danger). And if she’s using this term from an academic sense with which I’d have no reason to be familiar, then she’s savvy enough to know the difference between the academic and popularly understood meanings.

        “Inherently” has a meaning, and if white people are “inherently” white supremacists….then…what hope in hell do we have for *ending white supremacy,* which I thought is what we wanted?

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      2. ALSO, here in the US, various governmental and not-for-profit organizations track white supremacist groups for threats of violence and because trends in their membership numbers often correlate to other patterns or phenomena.

        If we want the definition of “white supremacy” watered down to this extent, such that every single white person in effect is a white supremacist, that’s a hindrance to the ability of people whose business it is to keep track of this stuff to communicate about it effectively.

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      3. Actually, I have heard the definition of supremacist that the author gave many times. And like Alex, I do not agree that the general public should accept the redefinition of a common word.

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