Most of us have, at one point in time or another, used coded language. This is language that disguises bigotry with culturally understood euphemisms that are well engrained into our everyday language. For example, when someone is describing a neighborhood or town that is “sketchy,” they usually mean “low income and predominately black.” This isn’t always a conscious decision, and individuals who use the language aren’t always aware of the depth of their own bigotry – but conscious or not, language matters in how we view issues.
For example, in moments of chaos, black individuals are accused of “looting.” During Hurricane Katrina, there was very little aid coming in from outside the cities of New Orleans or Biloxi, and many had lost their homes, businesses, and sources of income or food. And so they foraged: through the wreckage they found food and supplies to survive as they awaited help. The media pounced almost immediately, painting a picture of violent looting and assault. Although there was some violence, the predominately black cities were not nearly so crime ridden as they were made out to be. In contrast, the wins and losses of major sports teams are often accompanied by acts of senseless violence on the part of white individuals. These individuals aren’t labelled “thugs” or “rioters.” At most, they are labelled rowdy or mischievous or in revelry. This seemingly innocuous shift of phrase isn’t without consequence: peaceful black protests results in police brutality. Violent “revelries” result in flippant excuses. This is because the language we use not only reflects our internal biases, it reinforces our internal biases.
Black Americans aren’t the only disadvantaged group to face the effects of coded language. Women, queer individuals, and other ethnic and racial groups face similar issues. Recent ad campaigns by Always and Pantene have brought to light the language we use to refer to women, words such as “bossy” and “bitchy.” Although other groups don’t have the same press coverage, the language bias persists. Bisexuals are “indecisive” and “promiscuous,” and gay men are “fabulous.” Undocumented immigrants are “illegals,” and trans women aren’t “real women.” Even the tone of discussions that become too critical of minority treatment are policed by language. For example, “politically correct” has come to imply censorship. Language such as this doesn’t exist in a vacuum: it’s a tool. It’s a tool to uphold bias and to enforce pre-existing power structures.
Coded language isn’t limited to our racist grandmothers and clueless uncles either. It’s so deeply engrained in our everyday vernacular that even allies to disadvantaged groups slip up sometimes, or say things that have alternative meanings. If you’re interested in analyzing your own internal biases, paying attention to the language you use or even taking an implicit bias test is always a good start.