by Candice Nembhard

I was fortunate enough recently to discuss race and race relations with a dear friend of mine. We covered numerous standpoints and theories, but the heart of the conversation was all about exposing the power of language – specifically, how it is inherently embedded with racist structures.

Inspired by this discussion and by recent events, I felt compelled to investigate the influence of the Romance languages across the West. More specifically, I wanted to investigate their role in the oppression of people of colour (POC). I should clarify that language alone does not possess the ability to inhibit or suppress a group of people. It’s more that our understanding and use of language is affected by social constructs and institutionalised structures. This creates a hierarchical system with a dominant order of languages that often encourage a negative and violent subtext. 

The effect of these languages and their accompanying subtext is best seen across South America, the Caribbean, North Africa, and Central Europe. Countries whose national language is either English, French or Spanish have been indoctrinated into a system in which language is a form of ownership. The forceful eradication of native tongues gave rise to a select group of governing powers. Whether we like it or not, this is at its most evident today. Be it through music, politics, or literature, the Western language canon has trumped all popular forms of communication and, as a result, contributes to a system that favours whiteness and white supremacy.

The forceful eradication of native tongues gave rise to a select group of governing powers.

The tradition of Western languages is to normalise non-POC bodies and thereby to ‘other’ people of colour. If you read your local newspaper, visit a cinema, or read a book, the chances are that the people featured in these mediums will be white. How do we know this? Because in these systems, white is the default. This makes it invisible and powerful, and thereby exacerbates the racialising habits of Western languages. Anyone who isn’t part of the white institution is singled out for it in language form – think words such as ‘African-American’, ‘migrant’, ‘Muslim’.

These terms, specifically used to differentiate people, connect an easily repeated image with a powerful subtext. Though it isn’t quite a perfect fit, we can call them stereotypes. The stereotype, once globalised, does not have the power to redefine itself due to the way its meaning is commandeered by the dominant languages of the West. I cannot stress enough how dangerous stereotypes and their subtexts are when it comes to spreading and sharing oppressive systems such as racism. One of the most powerful aspects of this danger comes in the form of microaggressions, which are popularised by media outlets. Let’s use a recent case as an example:

On the 29th January 2017, six people were shot and killed at the Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec City, a mosque in the Sainte-Foy neighbourhood. Initial reports by right wing corporations such as Fox News purposefully and wrongly asserted that the assailant was of Moroccan descent. Later reports revealed the suspect to be French-Canadian Alexandre Bissonnette – who has since been charged on six counts of murder and five counts of attempted murder. He has not, however, been charged with terrorism. For many this is a simple error, but for non-white bodies the distinction is both visually and personally important.



Mohamed Yangui, president of the centre. Image credit: Pascale Lacombe

Reported crimes that involve white people are simply addressed as a crime. Depending on the severity and circumstance, the institutional repercussions are minimal. What I mean by this is that an entire nation or group of people are held responsible. Incidents in which a person of colour is involved are typically reported in a way that normalises the behaviour to a specific race – ‘Black on Black crime’ is perhaps the most obvious example. The suggestion that the man in question was Moroccan was a deliberate attempt to scapegoat a man and his community. It was written with the intent to incite fear and take the focus away from the dominant system. As more information was revealed, Bissonnette was dubbed as a ‘lone wolf’; not as a threat or a person to be feared. Popular articles and discussion pages emphasised his status as a student and skipped over his political alignments to the far right and to Donald Trump.

In the West, a migrant Moroccan man is seen to pose a bigger threat than a white Canadian. We are compelled to sympathise with a ‘suspect’ before understanding the nature of the crime. In the case of the reverse, the racialized body is already presumed guilty. This tactic is commonly used among media corporations when the subject in question is white. Under white supremacy, white bodies are ultimately humanised first thus making any connection between action and race seemingly absurd.

This style of reporting is not a standalone incident. In the cases of Erik Harris and Dylan Klebold (Columbine Massacre), Elliot Rodgers (Isla Vista Killings) and Dylann Roof (Charleston Church Shooting), their crimes were blamed on the outside world and not their internal intentions. (Harris and Klebold were deemed to be social outcasts, Rodgers was dubbed as ‘The Virgin Killer’ and Roof was said to be undergoing counselling before the shooting). Keep in mind that this is the same system that favours the prioritisation of white bodies. In each incident, the perpetrators are given a sympathetic loophole in a bigoted scheme that has quietly reserved the word ‘terrorist’ for non-white people.  

I have no answer or theory to resolve this issue. As a non-white person, I alone do not posses the strength or man-power to dismantle centuries of oppression. I do however, have the ability to question and ask, how many more ‘lone wolves’ do we need before we remove the racial tag from terrorism?

Featured image credit: Andrew Evans, National Geographic

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