McWhorter: Vocabulary imposed from on high sometimes just can’t catch on

Before the Canadian government considers embracing the US term BIPOC in its review of the Employment Equity Act, a useful reminder that it is no better than visible minorities in terms of how people see themselves, beyond academics and activists:

“BIPOC” has been with us for a few years now, and a certain verdict would appear to be in. Beyond academic and activist circles and some corners of social media, the acronym, which stands for “Black, Indigenous and people of color,” seems to strike most as rather peculiar. Clumsy, even. The Black academic and San Francisco Examiner columnist Teresa Moore wrote that the term “means well, but I want it to go away,” calling it “a solution to a problem that hadn’t needed solving,” a “‘New Coke’ of a word.”

I agree. Yet this does not mean that the term is, in itself, a mistake or a failure.

To be sure, the term has major problems, despite the good intentions of those who have broadcast and embraced it. The “POC” part is a frustratingly broad category, implying that Latinos and Asians (umbrella terms that are, perhaps, also too broad) constitute a coherent set — not to mention one that is somehow separate from Black and Indigenous people denoted by the “BI.” And “BI” is confusing, in that the term sounds at first as if it refers to bisexual people. Then, even when we are clear that it doesn’t, “BI” still sounds like a prefix of some kind, leading one to wonder just what a “POC” is. When spoken, “BIPOC” sounds like pocks who are bi in some way. And in English at least, “pock” doesn’t sound much like a person. Or, to my ear, if it did refer to a person, it would be in derision: “You pock!”

Although this isn’t how the term actually emerged, “BIPOC” sounds like one in a bunch of names thrown out amid a brainstorming session but never taken seriously, passed over in favor of something better that came up later. And that’s just it: “BIPOC” emerged — or, at least, broadly gained traction — not via a gradual consensus but via abrupt imposition amid the racial reckoning that began two springs ago, when many Americans were determined to renew our commitment to approaching race and racism in constructive ways.

Now, this kind of imposition does not automatically prevent a term from catching on. The problematizing of the term “master bedroom,” out of a sense that we should retire “master” as a relic of plantation slavery, arose from the same impulse as the usage of “BIPOC” and seems to be a success: “Master bedroom” is becoming non grata among some adjuncts of the real estate industry. Issues relating specifically to Black people seem particularly likely to dig a term in, as we also saw with how quickly “African American” caught on around three decades ago.

However, we are not merely passive supplicants at the mercy of prelates imposing lexical fiats from on high. Not everything settles in. For example, we are seeing that proposals for group names are less likely to be embraced when imposed from outside the group itself. When the Rev. Jesse Jackson called for the use of “African American,” his status and authority in Black America were roughly equal to Oprah Winfrey’s today. “African American” would have been much less likely to get around if it had been proposed by academics or lesser-known activists.

That kind of imposition from the outside has meant that “Latinx,” a gender-neutral alternative to “Latino” and “Latina,” is hardly used by the people it purports to refer to. In 2020, Pew Research found that only 3 percent of Latinos use the term. “BIPOC” isn’t doing much better. Too often, we take terminology proposals from academics and journalists as if we will henceforth be penalized — even if only socially — for going against their prescriptions. But their suggestions do not automatically affect language as it is used by ordinary people making themselves understood casually and comfortably.

It can seem that way because academics and journalists do a disproportionate amount of public writing and talking. For example, I suspect that normal people will continue saying “master bedroom”; I certainly will. Thus, there is no need to bristle at the proliferation of “BIPOC” as some kind of glowering fiat. Very few BIPOCs use it, and as Amy Harmon reported last year for The Times, in one national poll, “more than twice as many white Democrats said they felt ‘very favorably’ toward ‘BIPOC’ as Americans who identify as any of the nonwhite racial categories it encompasses.” And that is unlikely to change.

Again, this doesn’t mean “BIPOC” is a failed term. It has simply become part of a burgeoning register of English favored primarily by certain professors and political activists. This is no more a problem than another register, the academese favored by many scholars of literature and the social sciences. People of this realm have a way of writing and even speaking to one another on academic subjects that seems almost exotic to the outsider. For example, the renowned critical theorist and University of California, Berkeley, professor Judith Butler was granted first place in the journal Philosophy and Literature’s tongue-in-cheek bad-writing contest in 1998 for her prose in a 1997 essay, “Further Reflections on Conversations of Our Time,” that included this passage:

“The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.”

I find it a little facile to dismiss this genre, even in jest, as simply bad writing. Its practitioners intend it as studiously objective and precise. And the main thing, despite how unaesthetic this writing may be, is that it has no effect on how most of us communicate. It’s an in-group practice that people look upon from the outside with a certain bemusement. It is a jargon.

People who refer to hegemony and structural totalities have a jargon. These days, there is what we could call, yes, a woke jargon. That is where “Latinx” and “BIPOC” live. These terms are not mistakes or misfires in not being taken up by most of the people they refer to, then. Who, after all, has an issue with there being jargons?

As Sandra Garcia reported for The Times in 2020, Sylvia Obell, a host of the podcast “Okay, Now Listen,” said, “We are asking for a lot of things, and being called BIPOC is not one of them.” She added, “Stop making decisions for us without us.” She need not worry: The decision cannot be, and will not be, forced on her or anyone else. People will be referred to as BIPOC among a certain contingent who, like all contingents, have ways of speaking that signal membership in their group and dedication to the group’s fundamental commitments.

There isn’t a thing wrong with that, but the rest of us can — and will — happily continue speaking and writing of Black people, Latino or Hispanic people, Native American or Indigenous people, people of South Asian or East Asian descent and all the other kinds of people, including, if we please, people of color.

Source: Vocabulary imposed from on high sometimes just can’t catch on

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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