A Dozen Terms You Keep Hearing
For those who may be embarrassed to ask what they mean
If you’re like me, when I encounter a word I don’t know, I smile and pretend I know what it means and hope that the conversation doesn’t go any further. Then I step aside, take out my phone, and look it up. The recent protests have brought many new words online and into our digital worlds. The news uses them, online magazines use them, videos use them — all with the huge assumption that everyone understands. My guess is that very few people do. We do very little teaching to each other and way too much preaching. And the very few people who do understand the meaning of the following terms are usually in a liberal bubble talking to others in their own echo chamber. Trust me, I have direct access to that bubble. And I watch way too much CNN. I see it. No, these are not only “liberal words,” but let’s get real, they’re used more often in liberal circles.
Since I tend to be the sole liberal voice in many rooms in my life, I thought it would be helpful to explain these terms for my white and/or conservative friends and family. We all need to understand them and use them. I can feel you cringing right now. Ugh, why do we have to learn new words to deal with what’s going on in the world? You liberals are killing me! I get it. Hold the eye roll. If we expect to have a peaceful society with opportunities for all, we have to learn how to talk to one another with a common vocabulary. And please stop saying, “I don’t see color” and “I’m not racist.” We all are, and we all do see color. I am racist. I see color. It is impossible to be raised in America without being taught racism. But what you choose to say and do — and how you choose to act on that racism — matters most and will make all the difference for your community, your kids, and our country.
Here are a dozen phrases being used right now that you may not know. I, myself, just learned some of them in the last month. (I am not endorsing any of the campaigns associated with them. I can use other forums to express my personal and political beliefs. Also, I am white, despite the traditionally Spanish spelling of my first name. That’s a much longer story. Lastly, I chose these 12 because they came to mind first; they’re in no particular order.)
- White Privilege: This does not mean that white people have money and black people don’t or that somehow you, white woman who has three kids and works two jobs and is exhausted by trying to keep up in an expensive America, are “privileged,” as in “rich.” In my opinion, the term is misleading because of that common misperception. White privilege is the advantage you automatically get in our society because you are in the majority and are not black, Latin, Asian, or another race or color. So, for example, when you go apply for a mortgage, the banker doesn’t even question whether or not you can afford the payments. Yes, they question your finances and your credit and all of those things, of course, but your skin color is not related to how they interact with you. If a black person or person of color applies for a mortgage, they are often met with immediate lack of confidence, even suspicion. Yes, you may say, If they have the money and good credit, they should get the mortgage, too. We’re all equal. But that is not what has happened in America for the last 150 years. There are thousands of examples like this in our society, but we don’t see them, because we are white. That is the “privilege” we have. We don’t have to think about these things, at all.
- POC: That means “person of color.” Black people — at least my black friends — want to be called “black people.” They think calling everyone “African-American” is silly because not all black people are originally from Africa. Many are, but not all. POC includes black people plus all other non-white people. They are collectively “POC.” A related term, “BIPOC” stands for Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color. This includes who we have known to be Hispanic people, who now prefer to be called Latinx (“Latin-ex”) or Indigenous.
- White Fragility: This is the idea that when conversations about race come up, white people get uncomfortable, upset, and freak out. I’m not racist! Jesus! Stop with everything being about race! For us, as white people, we have the privilege and luxury that our life is not defined by our race, but that is not the case for POC. They are judged, questioned, and discriminated against every day because of their skin color, their name, their hair, etc. They cannot escape it the way we can. That defensiveness that you and I have about issues of race or the resistance we have to admitting that we are part of the problem is called white fragility.
- Implicit Bias: Our unconscious belief (meaning, we are not even aware of it) that black people are less than, bad, criminals, dangerous, second-class — all of that. We are all racist, and we all see color. For some of us it’s just more on the surface than for others. If you get into an elevator with a black man, and you’re strangely nervous but you can’t really say why, that’s your unconscious feeling that you are in danger. Why? Because we have been taught by our parents, our grandparents, society, Hollywood, media, etc., that white is good and black is bad, or white is nice and black is angry, or white is up and black is down. Yes, it’s wrong, it’s horrible, so let’s stop saying implicit bias doesn’t exist and start with an understanding that it is in all of us.
- Defund the Police: This does not mean take away all of the police funding so they don’t exist anymore. It’s a really confusing term, yes. It means taking away some of the funding that goes to police departments and moving it over to other departments that can address specific issues, like, for example, mental illness or drug abuse. Many agree with these kinds of changes. Even the President of the PBA (Police Benevolent Association) in New York City, Pat Lynch, said this week that, yes, there are many responsibilities that the police shouldn’t handle and that get dumped on them. The problem is people hear “defund,” and they think you want to drain the police of all money. No. It’s about moving resources around, so that, say, a mental health care worker can respond to mental health crisis in a house or a drug counselor can respond to a drug abuse situation, etc. There are many problems with this idea, as well. For example, well, if it’s a drug abuse situation, how do you know there are no guns involved? Shouldn’t you send police? These are all valid and legit questions. The “Defund the Police” movement is about asking these questions. Are some people using the term wrong? Yes.
- Abolish the Police. This term is less about actually “abolishing” police departments but re-building them or re-imagining how we handle public safety. It doesn’t actually mean a society with zero police, although the term is certainly used by people who do want that. Most people mean starting from scratch and building a new way of “policing,” as we know the term, like the city of Camden, New Jersey did. Best rule of thumb whenever you’re talking about “defund” or “abolish” is this: ask how someone is defining the word.
- Institutional Racism. You may hear this term used interchangeably with “structural racism.” This term describes a fully broken system in which racism is everywhere: government, big business, Hollywood, at your local dentist, etc. It is the idea that racism is like a virus and has spread to every part of our society, that there are laws, regulations, rules, policies in every institution of our society that deepen the racial divide. That’s why much of the protesting is asking for reforms to “institutional racism.” Because it’s not just about George Floyd’s murder. It’s much, much bigger that that.
- Equity (as opposed to Equality). The terms equity and equality are often used interchangeably, but they mean different things. Equality means that we are all the same. Equity is creating an equal playing field, so…admitting that we are not all the same, and that we have not been given the same opportunities, so we have to create ways to make us all the same. So, the goal of “affirmative action” in college admission is equity. We know that black and white communities, therefore black and white students, have not been given the same resources, so it is likely that black students have access to fewer higher educational opportunities. Affirmative action — which is not perfect by any means — is an effort to level the playing field. The meme below illustrates equity best (scroll all the way down; I can’t figure out how to embed it without messing the formatting up).
- Redlining. This is a practice that very few white people even know about. Throughout the last century in America (starting in 1935), all across the country, banks, investment firms, insurance agencies, even healthcare companies used the same set of maps (created by the government) to determine which areas of a city to invest in, offer loans to, build supermarkets in, etc. Undesirable neighborhoods — mostly black neighborhoods — were outlined in red (literally). These areas were specifically avoided for development. Instead, resources were put into white neighborhoods. Because of these practices, if you were black, you wouldn’t be able to get a mortgage for a house or even a lease in a white area. The entire modern real estate market is racist in this way, because it’s based on these old practices. Even now, highways in Los Angeles and New York and many other cities divide white neighborhoods from black neighborhoods. That was not by accident. It was planned that way. And we’re seeing the terrible consequences of it. Also, because of redlining, many black families never had the chance to buy and sell houses the same way that our white parents and grandparents did over the last century. We “built wealth.” We may not feel wealthy, but we have equity (a different type of equity) in our homes that has been built up because prices rise in “desirable” neighborhoods. That wealth stays in our families. Many black families have never accumulated that wealth over the years because they were denied mortgages due to redlining.
- Woke. Woke means you’re “awake” to all of these issues and are not ignoring that they exist. Putting your head in the sand and refusing to deal with these things is not helpful to anyone, and so this term is used to refer to people who “get it,” as opposed to those who are putting their blinders on. Yes, it’s used obnoxiously sometimes, but it is meant to wake us all up from the fantasy land we live in that race (and other social issues) are not real problems. If you’ve turned on your TV in the last two weeks, you see we have real problems that can’t be ignored.
- Anti-racism. This means being actively not racist. So, the term and the use of it means that it’s not good enough to be “not racist.” In order for us to fix the massive problem on our hands, we have to over-correct. We have to learn, teach, call out, confront, speak up, etc. in order to create a society that can one day be “not racist.” So, if you’re sitting at your dinner table with your cousin and he says something racist, you might think, Well, I know that I am not racist and I don’t agree with him, so I won’t say I agree, I’ll just let it slide so I don’t have to argue. That’s been going on in our families for way too long. Being anti-racist means having that difficult conversation and actively countering the racism. Yeah, it sucks. But it’s necessary if we want to live in a better world. It also means reading books and watching movies to educate yourself about racism and the role that we all play.
- Electoral Justice. This is specifically about voting. Electoral justice means ensuring that all races have the chance to vote in our elections. I can hear you say it already, Everyone can vote! That is not true. Case after case, state after state, we have seen districts where black people and all POC are shut out of voting. For example, having only one polling place in the whole county or having too few voting machines in black communities so that there are longer lines so that people will leave and not vote — these are ways that black people are denied their rights to participate fully in democracy.
These are simple explanations, and there are books that have been written and more that could be written to explain all of these ideas. In the end, we can all start by learning these terms, so that we can participate in conversations about how to make society work better for everyone.