Language is powerful. The spoken and written word carries great symbolism and it can be skillful or harmful depending on its use and interpretation.
Take the current national conversation about white supremacy in America. When I began to hear the term white supremacy earlier in my life, images of the KKK, police beatings in the ‘60s South, and survivalist groups came to mind.
Ok, let’s do some labels. I’m white. I’m in my late 60s. I’m male and heterosexual in my gender and sexual identification.
How on earth could I also be a white supremacist? The very word supremacist causes me to have a negative reaction.
It seems to me this is when use of language can become overloaded with meaning. I understand white supremacy now to mean (at least in the United States) the culture and values of people from Europe who settled this country starting in the 1600s. The vast majority were from Northern Europe, including many of my ancestors. They were British, Scandinavian, German, French, Polish and many others. They brought a wide variety of cultural and religious norms with them. Over time, the religious identity of the United States became Protestant Christian. Later, Catholic and Jewish people were grudgingly accepted, but the Protestant religion continued to be a very powerful religious influence here.
African blacks, along with black people from the Caribbean and other places, were forcibly brought to this country as property and sold. American Indians were driven off their ancestral lands and sent to reservations to starve or die. The Mexican War in the 1840s was about manifest destiny. People who were from the other parts of America south of the border were regarded with suspicion and racial prejudice.
For 300 years or more, the most powerful voices in this country have been white and male. They have also been a whole mixture of disputing arguments about religion, natural identity, cultural mores, and who has the most power.
I suspect the most troubling word of that phrase white supremacy is supremacy. It conjures up the KKK and other images I mentioned above. However, supremacy usually means to be in control, to have power, to have the final word. The trouble is (at least for me) that the harsh meaning (KKK, the South, etc.) can trigger a shutting down of open mindedness. We revert to, “I am not KKK or particularly biased or racist.” and then turn away from discernment because supremacy is interpreted as supremacist.
However, just because we might disagree about a word’s meaning doesn’t make the story behind it wrong. Most power and influence in America is in the hands of white, mostly male, mainly Christian people.
We UUs often find ourselves translating religious terms into more inclusive ones. I translate the word God into a meaning that works for me. Redemption is a perfectly good word but I understand it very differently than some of my evangelical Christian friends.
So, why don’t we translate white supremacy into a more discerning term white dominance? We might have less likelihood of triggering the “I AM NOT THAT” reaction if we hear dominance rather than supremacy.
Why bother to shade the meaning of these words? It seems to me that if we are to discern our unskillful national habits as white people, we need to open our eyes and ears to hear what non-white people are saying to us.
We already translate and interpret words in many ways in order to understand and use them skillfully (as well as unskillfully). Perhaps we need to start with white dominance and work our way from there to the realization of how painful our taken-for-granted power in America has been.
What do you think?