The Fallacy of “We Can’t Say Anything“
by Tarnya Stanton-Britton
One of the most frequently uttered nonsense phrases I hear as a committed white anti-racist when discussing racism with run of the mill white people is “we can’t say anything.” They live under the delusion that language is a minefield. It’s not, its lazy wilful ignorance. My surrogate sister has a traumatic brain injury sustained shortly after her time she spent during her formative years in the depths of 1970s Texas backwaters; a time she shared with people that believed the confederate flag was not a hate rag and the N word was permissible language to use with one another. She was even granted permission by the Black members of her social circle to call them that hideous word affectionately. If she could grow and learn not to use offensive language that does not align with her actual feelings towards Black People and other people of colour, anyone can.
Believe me, when she is tired or if her Aphasia – the inability to access words - is particularly bad, she struggles with a more up-to-date, inclusive, correct (note I did not say politically correct because that implies that it is a facade) language, but she puts the effort not to rely on the outdated and troubling, often offensive language with which she was raised. You see the big thing here is she actively chooses not to use offensive language. It is a genuine choice to grow as a person not to unintentionally marginalise, hurt and offend others. It’s a choice, at 54, to learn why the language she is used to, is wrong, that it was always wrong; that Black People and people of colour are not suddenly becoming sensitive to these words, but there is a move to no longer tolerate the white supremacist bigotry they’ve been subjected to for centuries.
When the synapses are misfiring and she cannot access the 21st century lexicon, it can be excruciating to have a conversation about anything. When we are discussing racism, which we do a lot since she takes as much interest in my passions that include anti-racism, as I do hers, she has reached a point in her journey where she refuses to access that easy old offensive vocabulary. She knows that I know it is just that, old vocabulary from a time when she was ignorant of the problems with the language of white people living in white supremacist nations. She doesn’t WANT to slip with me, because if she takes the easy route with me, where her heart is known, she may slip in company that will be hurt by her slip. What this tells me is, the “we can’t say anything” brigade are choosing lazy ignorance, they are choosing to remain entrenched in the White Supremacy they fervently deny even exists.
The why is easy, delusional superiority, the accepting and embracing of the unjust advantages afforded by the colour of their skin at some level, be it consciously or subconsciously. Anyone that is capable of true empathy, who can see the injustices that non-white races endure in white dominated societies, are able to see that we need to move to a social vocabulary that is more inclusive and less harmful. The difficulty comes in getting these people to take the first baby step towards an equitable and just society for all. To do that, I believe we need to eliminate the notion of “political correctness” It implies the decision to be inclusive with our language is a sign of political allegiance, which in some respects it is. There can be no doubt that there exists a correlation between the political spectrum, regardless of the country we come from, and the societal morals we espouse, the further to the Right, the more nationalist, fascist leanings the more tolerant, even welcoming of racism human beings are. The more liberal, socialist leanings the more people tend to embrace a heterogeneous society. However, this linear spectrum doesn’t always align with society’s beliefs on race. While political affiliation to the right; fascism and nationalism, literally encourage a homogeneous society, there does exist on the left, people that support the economic elements of the ideologies while maintaining the insidious white supremacy with which society has become accustomed. Therefore, in order to make that first baby step of making our shared lexicon more inclusive, more compassionate to how our words impact upon others, we have to drop the political from the correctness. We must make the language universally correct and no longer a statement of politics, at least in appearances to the less learned on the subject.