5 commonly used words still fuelling systemic racism

1950 North Carolina, USA (Photo by Elliot Erwitt)

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past couple months, I’m assuming you’re aware of the protests regarding the injustices black (and indigenous) people are still facing today, costing them their lives and traumatizing their family, close friends and communities for several generations to come.

This is not new. It’s been happening over and over for centuries. Many artists talked about it before and are still doing their best to raise awareness about it. To name a few :

  • Lil Baby said it with “The Bigger Picture” in 2020
  • Childish Gambino said it with “This is America” in 2018
  • Beyoncé said it with “Formation” in 2016
  • Wyclef Jean said it with “Diallo” in 2000
  • Michael Jackson said it with “They don’t really care about us” in 1995
  • Rage Against the Machine said it with “Killing in the Name” in 1991
  • N.W.A. said it with “Fuck the police” in 1988
  • The Clash said it with “Know your rights” in 1982
  • Marvin Gaye said it with “What’s going on” in 1971
  • Billie Holiday said it with “Strange Fruit” in 1939
  • And the list goes on. . .

Sadly, not enough people seem to really hear these calls for change or care enough to want to do something about it. Hundreds of years have gone by and there hasn’t been a significant improvement to resolve this issue for a very long time. . . . Or maybe they just don’t understand.

I’ve mostly been observing the reactions from people, both in my immediate environment and online, ranging from blissfully ignorant and clueless to aware and seemingly trying to figure out what they can do about it.

On the clueless end of the spectrum (contributing to this problem) there are still people who believe that there’s nothing wrong with wanting your kids to only marry someone who’s “fair skinned” for example; all the way to people who still use “blue lives matter” as an argument against a call for change.

Meanwhile, innocent black and indigenous people are still dying.

This got me thinking : What would be a simple way to get to the root of the problem and make some tangible changes? Because protests, public art, donating money to charities, new inclusion rules, and even potential arrests or defunding the police are still band-aid solutions to a much deeper wound.

To make it easier for some to understand this issue, let’s use the analogy of the school system:

Imagine, there’s a prestigious private high school that’s been around for many generations. Many teenagers who come out of the school end up doing well in life. But some people are saying that several of the teachers in this school sexually harass and abuse teenagers, more specifically girls with blond hair and blue eyes. But it seems so out there that the counter argument is that maybe some of these teens are promiscuous, on drugs, or say things like that to get attention.

Not all the teachers are predators, but most of the teachers are aware of the situation. They stay silent because they fear that if they say something against the school, they will loose their job. In fact, those who did so, not only lost their job but were not able to get a teaching job anywhere else.

One day, someone leaks proof of the sexual abuse on blond-hair-blue-eyes teens by some of the school’s teachers on social media. Many are shocked to see that the rumours were actually true. But some think the videos are fake. Family members and friends of the victims and other students start protesting the school. Eventually, after months of protests, the school releases a statement stating that they will reprimand the mentioned teachers. So they give a warning to the teachers who got caught with a paid sabbatical for a year.

Some organization start painting murals in solidarity for the victims and even invite blond-hair-blue-eyes artists to create some of the murals. Other parents, not directly affected by the issue, are angry at the protestors because they feel it affects the reputation of the school and the education of their kids. They believe that the blond teens are mostly trying to get attention and are either lying, somehow tricked the involved teachers by wearing revealing clothes or were on drugs. So they create counter protests with signs saying things like “education matters” and “teachers’ reputation matters”.

Meanwhile, blond-hair-blue-eyed teens keep being sexually harassed and abused by some of the teachers at the school. The problem is not solved.

It’s essentially the same when it comes to police brutality against a subsection of the population. The issue runs a lot deeper than what most people seem to think. That’s why protest signs from 60 years ago, are still relevant today. They are asking for the same thing. Nothing has really changed. Innocent black and indigenous people are still dying.

Let that sink in.

African American demonstrators outside the White House, with signs “We demand the right to vote, everywhere” and signs protesting police brutality against civil rights demonstrators in Selma, Alabama. Negative by Warren K. Leffler, 1965. Prints & Photographs Division. Photo by Library of Congress on Unsplash

So what now ?

“If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” — Dr. Wayne Dyer.

First, it’s important to really see the problem for what it is because you cannot solve a problem you cannot see. So, how do you really see the problem? Perhaps, start with the words you use. It has come to my attention that the words we use keeps us from seeing the real problem : systemic racism.

Systemic racism is the kind of discrimination that is so engrained in our belief system and habits, we don’t even notice it. It normalizes our behaviour, as well as the terms we use, that discriminate against people, based on their race or culture. When you take that under consideration, you may realize that police brutality is a symptom of systemic racism, not the cause.

With that in mind, resolving the issue of racism goes beyond tackling police brutality. Instead of trying to put band-aids over multiple deep wounds, we get to prevent the wound from happening in the first place.

Racism is a virus of the mind with its roots embedded in people’s belief system.

Over the years, I’ve come to understand the following sequence :

  • What you believe will affect your thoughts.
  • What you think of, will affect your words.
  • What you say will affect your actions.
  • How you act will have tangible consequences in your life and the lives of people around you.

This sequence plays an important role in everyone’s life, especially when it comes to systemic racism.

Take the George Zimmerman case for example. He’s “famous” for killing an innocent 16 year old black teen coming out of a convenience store. And although many see his action as racist, he still seem to believe he did nothing wrong. Removing his ability to use a firearm will not stop him from believing he did “the right thing”. What he did is a byproduct of his belief system, the root cause of the problem.

That’s why he seems to have no problem signing Skittle bags for fans, selling the weapon he used to kill Trayvon Martin in an auction as “an American Firearm icon” for $250,000 and suing the parents of the teenager he killed for $100,000,000.00.

It all starts with his belief system. I can only speculate that he believes that his convictions are more important than someone else’s freedom or life. His belief gave him permission to think that a young black teenager should not be near the local convenience store in “his” gated community. And based on his belief he took action.

There are two main problems I see here. First is Zimmerman’s belief system. Second, is in the belief system of the system, which fuels Zimmerman’s belief system even more.

Racism is a virus of the mind with its roots in people’s belief system. The way to solve it is to change their belief system by first exposing it for what it is. One way to expose it is to carefully look at some of the words we use.

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

Choose your words wisely

When you hear or read a word, it immediately creates an image in your mind, triggers an emotion and reinforces a belief. That belief will cause you to automatically act and react in a certain way and your actions will affect the people you’re with, as well as your environment.

For example, what image comes to mind when you see the word “protester”? Most likely you’ll think of people with signs trying to bring attention to an issue.

Now, what comes to mind when you think of the word “rioter”? Most likely people vandalizing public property.

The more important question is : What do they look like in YOUR mind? And what does that say about your beliefs?

One of the simplest and easiest way you can contribute to start ending racism is with the words you choose and how you use them. Many terms used to day are rooted in a belief and acceptance of the separation between white and non-white people. I’m sure there are more but here are five that stand out for me :

  • white supremacy
  • visible minority
  • BIPOC
  • fair skinned
  • caucasian

1. White Supremacy

Illustration by MJ

Let’s start with the most obvious term on the topic of racism: “White Supremacy”. What does it actually mean? Here’s what ADL.org had to say about it :

White supremacy is a term used to characterize various belief systems central to which are one or more of the following key tenets:

1) whites should have dominance over people of other backgrounds, especially where they may co- exist;

2) whites should live by themselves in a whites-only society;

3) white people have their own “culture” that is superior to other cultures;

4) white people are genetically superior to other people.

As a full-fledged ideology, white supremacy is far more encompassing than simple racism or bigotry. Most white supremacists today further believe that the white race is in danger of extinction due to a rising “flood” of non-whites, who are controlled and manipulated by Jews, and that imminent action is need to “save” the white race.

I’m assuming that the members of that group came up with their name, calling themselves “supreme”. But what does the word supreme means? It means superior or better than.

So when you call them by the terms they appointed to themselves, you are essentially supporting their beliefs; contributing to the narrative they created stating that they are “better than”. You’re essentially buying into their illusion instead of referring to them as what they truly are : A group of people who go around intimidating, terrorizing and killing other people because they don’t look or think like them and because they are scared of becoming extinct.

Instead of “White Supremacist” use “White Terrorist”

Using the word terrorist is more accurate. A terrorist is defined as “a person who uses unlawful violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims.” In this case it’s a white person who uses unlawful violence and intimidation, especially against people of colour, in the pursuit of their “political” aims.

Why change the term? Because not shedding light on the truth keeps the problem going. Being part of a terrorist group does not have the same appeal as being part of a supreme group.

They are not superior so don’t put them on a pedestal. The only pedestal they’ve earned to stand on is perhaps for being one of the most racist group on the planet. Stop beating around the bush when referring to them. Show them the mirror: They are racial terrorists.

Hiram Wesley Evans, Grand Wizard of the KKK at the Ku Klux Klan parade, 9/13/26 . National Photo Company Collection (Library of Congress)
Hiram Wesley Evans, Grand Wizard of the KKK at the Ku Klux Klan parade, 9/13/26 . National Photo Company Collection (Library of Congress)

2. Visible Minority

Photo by Daniel Reche from Pexels

Since I was a kid, I always had a problem with the term “visible minority” to refer to people of colour. Minority is a term that evokes a sense of “lesser then”, smaller, not as important. Isn’t it ironic that this term only applies to people of colour? Have you ever heard this term used for a white person living in a predominantly non-white neighbourhood or country?

If it really was a number’s game, then it should be used for different ethnic groups in different regions. For example, according to the 2018 United States census estimate, Black people are ethnically a majority in the District of Columbia. If the term “visible minority” was really used to depict the lower number of people, then it shouldn’t be used to define Black people in DC. They are not a “visible minority” in that area. In fact they represents 57.76% of the population in DC.

This term “visible minority” is a not so covert way to say “not-white.” It’s the indirect way to emphasize the racial divide in the way of thinking, separating those who are white and those who are not white. To me, it sounds like a watered down version of the “terms and conditions” of the ideologies of White Terrorist groups. It may not conjure images at the same level of violence, but it still attempts to put white people in a different and “better”category than everyone else.

Instead of “visible minority” just say “non-white” or “not-white”

It’s more honest and it will allow you to really see the segregation still present today and sheds more light on the belief surrounding the “need” for that term in the first place. Instead of putting everyone else in a box calling them a minority because of the colour of their skin, you’re showing the implied separation between whites and non-whites.

It seems like the only ones who really care about what percentage of non-white people live in an area, are racist white people who are afraid to “go instinct” : one of the core value of the White Terrorists earlier. Referring to non-white people as “minority” is just a mask to hide from the intent behind these words : trying to make non-white people feel “lesser than” (a minority) so that white people can feel “more than” (a majority).

3. BIPOC

Photo by RF._.studio on Pexel

The acronym BIPOC is another term I have a bit of an issue with. Not that it’s bad to make sure everyone feels seen, but it also feels more like another watered down version of the term “white supremacy” or “visible minority”. Again, the term covers everyone under the sun who is not white.

BIPOC stands for Black, Indigenous and People of Color : everyone except white people. Why not just say “not-white” instead? BIPOC feels dishonest. It feels like it’s covering up (again!) the separation between everyone who’s white and everyone who’s not. Putting them in a separate category fuels separation promoted by racist views. Using this term supports that view. So let’s stop beating around the bush and say what’s really meant by that term. Only then will we be more aware of how deep the problem is.

Instead of “BIPOC” say “non-white” or “not-white”

How does that make you feel? It feels different than BIPOC doesn’t it? But it means the same thing, the only difference is that one is honest, the other is camouflaging the issue.

Saying it will make people feel uncomfortable and will prompt more people to ask questions like why and where does that separation comes from?

4. Fair Skin

Recent controversial Dove Commercial

“Mirror, mirror on the wall. Who’s the fairest of them all?”

Do you remember that line? What does it mean? Fair means light skin and beautiful. Fair skin is a “quality” that many cultures all over the world strive for and even sell skin lightening cream for, to achieve this result.

If light skin is associated with fair skin and beauty. What’s the opposite? Unfair and ugly? Words associations, implied meaning and bias : the beauty industry is riddled with this implied bias and has been for centuries.

Remember Dove’s recent racist ad controversy implying that their product is so good, you’ll go from dark to light when using it? Showing dark skin as “dirty” and light skin as “clean”. This is not new. That concept has been used many times before to reinforce the idea that darker skin is ugly and lighter skin (or fair skin) is beautiful. Can you see the similarities between theDove commercial in the 21st century and soap commercial in the late 1800s? Is this really progress, 200 years later?

PEARS SOAP (Illustrated London News, 1880).

Instead of “fair skin” use “light skin”

When you use terms like “fair skin” you perpetuate the problem subconsciously feeding the narrative over and over again : White is better or lighter is more beautiful. And it’s still use in makeup description today.

Just take a look at the description for makeup foundations in the image below: fairest, fair skin, light/medium, medium, medium dark, dark. Why use “fairest and fair” instead of light?

Foundation selection via Pinterest

Even royalty free images of models have implied biases based on race. Just take a look at the same concept image using two different models from rawpixel.com : a white woman and a black woman. The tags attached to each image tell an interesting story.

The tag words used for the white woman says : censored, censorship, allowed not, alone, banned, blank, censor, copy space, covered, covering, eligible, forbid

The tag words used for the black woman says : hidden, censored, covered mouth, mouth, not, problem, threat, African, African descent, alone, banned, black.

See the problem ?

The only difference between the two images is the colour of their skin the colour of clothes they are wearing and the length of their hair. Yet the implied ideas from the word tagged to the image are completely different. The white woman is associated with “eligible” while the black women is associated with “problem, threat, African, African descent, banned, black”.

Rawpixel.com royalty free image
Rawpixel.com royalty free image

5. Caucasian

Where does that word even come from? It is said that a German anatomist named Johann Blumenbach visited the Caucasus Mountains, located between the Caspian and Black seas, and he must have been enchanted because he labeled the people there “Caucasians” and proposed that they were created in God’s image as an ideal form of humanity.

Blumenbach went on to name four other “races,” each considered “physically and morally ‘degenerate’ forms of ‘God’s original creation.’” Doesn’t that sound a bit like the White Terrorists way of thinking? Not only that but Blumenbach’s system of racial classification was adopted in the United States to justify racial discrimination — particularly slavery.

So, once again, using the term “caucasian” is reinforcing this idea of white people being superior because that term was use to depict people who perceived themselves as “better than” and “created in God’s image as an ideal form of humanity”.

Instead of “caucasian” use “European-American” or “white”.

Ever wonder why you rarely, if ever, hear the term European-American? But you certainly heard African-American, Asian-American and even Native-American despite the fact that they technically are the only one who should be called Americans since they are native of America.

Image by Joshua Miranda from Pixabay

Words have power.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. These 5 terms — white supremacy, visible minority, BIPOC, fair skinned and caucasian — reinforce similar racist ideologies : that white people are better than any other ethnic groups and should be separate from them.

There are most likely many more terms with the same effect on systemic racism that people still use today. Uncovering them will most likely help make significant progress towards eradicating this mental disease. But to solve the problem, we need to truly see it first.

“He who conceals his disease cannot expect to be cured” — African Proverb

Are the words you’re using contributing to eradicate systemic racism or contributing to preserve it ?

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Toronto-based artist. Professional dreamer. www.mariejudith.com

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Marie-Judith Jean-Louis

Marie-Judith Jean-Louis

Toronto-based artist. Professional dreamer. www.mariejudith.com

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