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Decolonizing The Language of Racism

Labeling people by color perpetuates racism. We need new language to make real progress.


Picture by Polina Kovaleva


Using color to categorize individuals is a construct that was developed in the 17th century by European colonizers. At the time, African inhabitants were being traded as slaves; after Spanish “conquistadores” took most of America on behalf of the Spanish kingdom, categories emerged: ‘colonizer, slave, and colonized.’ These categories became ‘white, black and brown’. The media of the time spread the concept, laying the groundwork for where we are today: whiteness was born as a race of the powerful, — a race that dominated, denigrated, and stigmatized people that were tyrannized and subjugated against their will.

Colors are not races, and races are not representative of a country or a region. Americans or Europeans are not Caucasian anymore. 4.3 billion Asians cannot be thrown into the “people of color” box just because it’s easier to ‘other’ them that way. There are 53 African countries and most of them were colonized by Europeans, therefore, “African” doesn’t mean one race either; and “brown” people come in an interminable number of shades and passports, including European countries and all continents.


At the level of globalization that we live in, the colored race construct is completely anachronistic.

Today’s society is not — and cannot be — categorized as it was then, and yet we have kept using these separate boxes to continue creating a framework where some people are seen and treated as inferior, which continues to be every one that doesn’t belong to the dominant group. We also continue moving whole clusters of individuals from one box to another based on convenience; people who are Jewish, for example, are white in some contexts but not in others. But even though we are still dealing with its effects, the ‘colonialism’ that created the categories we are still using is over. So it’s time to repair the damage and remove the separation that has affected millions of individuals over three centuries. I believe this is the only way that we can move forward as a country.


To continue using “color” to categorize individuals is a way to perpetuate structural racism.


Racism generates racism. As a specialist on emotional trauma, I see the emotional effects of racism in everyone who continues to be categorized as other; I see it in “whites” too. The anti-racist movement is bringing up feelings of shame and guilt in many Americans who consider themselves “white.” Very soon, being called “white” might no longer be aspirational, popular, or a cause of pride for those that have a higher consciousness of what it really means.


At this point in our cultural history, it’s becoming a no-brainer that we must make a greater intentional effort to create a divide between colonial times and today and become the inclusive society that we can be. Currently, millions of people are joining the effort of identifying their biases, increasing their awareness of their personal participation in the institutionalization of racism, recognizing the pain that so many ‘others’ have experienced through their mindless use of an unearned privilege, and becoming interested in the wellbeing of the whole society.


There is a large number of individuals realizing that to grow stronger, it is essential to recognize the contribution and participation of all citizens as equals and reestablish their power.


Indubitably, there are millions who will push harder in order to continue oppressing those that threaten their complete dominance, their supremacy, their control, and the benefits they have received from having manufactured a racist culture; they will continue manipulating and sharing extreme and myopic believes that others are inferior to keep their reign.


But even after decades (and an especially horrible few years) of racist attitudes have dominated the conversation, there is a significant effort to change things at every level. From corporations to universities, all sorts of associations and institutions have embraced the urgency of voicing a non-racist stance, and to (somewhat) claim that new measures to become more socially fair and united are being implemented. Allying is now a verb.


But we all know that good intentions and public statements are not enough, that there is a lot of work to do to undo everything that's been designed with a racist milieu (so, everything). The sense of superiority that has entitled people to act, think, speak and write about others offensively and dismissively without a grain of remorse, the colonialist legacy, has to be undone — a difficult but not impossible task since everything lays on that foundation.


One major shift we can make immediately is in the language we use. Today, we can become non-racist with our words. Language plays a major role in “othering” people and in inaudibly protecting the status quo. “Others” are so used to being classified that both, those who are dominant, and those who are “othered,” have accepted the pejorative language as normal. The victory has been moving from “colored” to “people of color.” Today’s “BIPOC” is an activist term, with roots in fighting for inclusion, but even those in the activist community are vocalizing the opinion that it’s ineffective for several different reasons. For me, the term represents the opposite of inclusion.


Anyone who identifies as oppressed should be heard and acknowledged but not othered. The injustice to people of African descent should be acknowledged but not prolonged. Whiteness needs to end.


To be truly, radically inclusive, we should start accepting the damage inflicted and clean ourselves of the colonial categories and remove colors as labels. The role of the media here can be huge since we may feel there’s only so much we can do as individuals. White writers have popularized the term BIPOC; they can also erase those tags and use words like “diverse” instead, if necessary; writers with power should use their curiosity, inquisitiveness, and creativity here. What about going deeper into who they are writing about and be as specific and inclusive as they need to be to avoid the racist constructs?


Categories have been a way to hold power. By inviting people to self-identify with the dominant groups and act accordingly, power stays in those hands. We should stop creating and marking limits and create concepts that are more universal.


Since I’m a therapist, I’m concerned about the effects of racism on mental health, promulgated by some of the language I’m writing against. For more on that, you can read an article I wrote about how carrying labels imposed by the dominant groups have a negative impact on mental health and identity. I’m writing here with an expansion on that piece because I believe that once a problem is identified, solutions must follow.


Here is what I propose: Can we, instead of using colors, adopt names that reflect the person’s identifier of choice, their nationality, or something that tells us more about them than the construct of “race”? (Think about options and share them in the comments).
Each person should decide how they want to be identified and feel free to correct labels or assumptions that they do not associate with, even if the labeler thinks that they are correct. Please ask each person "how do you identify yourself?" instead of asking "Do you prefer Hispanic or LatinX?"
Words have had the capacity to create wars. They could also have the power to create a Revolution without hatred, blood, or suffering. Respect has always been a universal language!

To walk the talk, I’ve been changing my words when I teach, supervise, or work with my clients. I have been applying cultural curiosity in my interactions by reviewing my own fundamental assumptions and replacing them with research, questioning, and openness. I have encountered answers I’d have never imagined hearing. I just asked a 30-year-old guy with an abundant cultural heritage about the way he wanted to be identified; he responded “I’m so blended that I consider myself to be part of a global race. You can call me ‘global’.” How is that for a decolonized name?


In the book Traumatization and Its Aftermath (Routledge, 2023) you can read a clear description on how the language of racism can be traumatizing and what the consequences are. If you want to receive information, sign up here.

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