Preliminary thoughts on Language and Power in the Cannibal Nation
In 1971, Sun Ra gave a lecture in Berkeley, California. He spoke about language and how words are spells. He was a master of what became known as “spiritual” free form jazz. Ra sought to change the frequencies of the minds of Black people, to free them from the poisonous confusion and subjugation by the white race, through the language of music.
In this stream of consciousness lecture, Ra pulled apart the intricate ways that words slip into our minds and affect us. He spoke of “dead languages” and how they’re “never really dead.” Old words and their meanings stay alive in our language today; it’s just that we “don’t know where they came from but these words from ancient days are affecting people today.”
“All these things effect people, It doesn’t matter if you know about them or not.”
Language has both a clear and subtle relationship to power. There is power in the words we use to name and categorize objects and people. Today, some of the words we use — and the meanings and values that have been placed on them — actively maintain oppressive systems. The concepts of whiteness are delivered through language. They shape minds and spark the production of physical racist structures and spaces in the world. Many words or phrases that we casually use today originate from practices within slavery and colonialism. Understanding how language programs human behavior, while also reinforcing and reproducing inequality, is important for social and racial justice work. Being able to decipher language also helps us to navigate the performance politics of “diversity” and “inclusion” under late liberalism (Povinelli 2011).
White people (and those who are aligned psychologically and culturally with whiteness) use language everyday to avoid facing reality. Regardless of political affiliation, and when faced with the aspects of our world that they don’t want to deal with, many (liberals and otherwise) will refer to facts by saying “Well, that’s your opinion” and more overt racists will refer to facts as “revisionist history.” It was the standardization of vernacular language in Europe that facilitated the formation of nationhood, particularly through the invention of the printing press and the resulting “print-as-commodity” capitalism (Anderson 1983). Today, white nationhood is reinforced through the shared practice of mislabeling facts in order to neutralize them — in mind and narrative.
On the other hand, there has been some oppositional — and hysterically accurate — language to more properly analyze and name the identical behavior and ideologies of both Trump and Biden supporters; such as labeling Biden’s “vote blue no matter who” crew as #BlueMAGA, and the psychologically dissonant conspiracy theories that they parrot ad nauseam as #BlueAnon and Trump Derangement Syndrome (TDS). This use of a language of resistance to the equally racist, anti-Black, and pro-slavery Democratic Party nonsense stands counter to the horribly dishonest narratives of both wings of the white ruling class.
In Mary Bucholtz’s White affects and sociolinguistic activism (2018), she discusses how “race and language are inextricably tied together.” Bucholtz is self-critical about the efficacy of some her own efforts towards racial justice and explains how the limits of sociocultural linguistics are insufficient to dismantling white supremacy. She speaks about how removing superficial manifestations of racism or creating new names for colonial spaces of genocide does not solve the material problems of racism.
Bucholtz gives an example of a street sign in California: “[T]he Santa Barbara street name Indio Muerto ‘dead Indian’ not only reflects a history of violence against indigenous Californians but also represents a form of ongoing linguistic violence that continues to harm the local Native community”, specifically because “when Californians of Latinx heritage are being deported indiscriminately, does the name of the street where they used to live really matter, or whether diacritics were used in their names on the deportation orders?” Bucholtz summarizes her central argument when she said, “[R]edressing linguistic inequality on its own cannot redress racial inequality,” a simple yet very salient concept that still lacks a critical and engaged approach across many disciplines.
Today as lynchings by the police — and other forms of white terrorism — persist, many politician’s go-to solutions tend to be symbolic and performative and less about actual action or policy.
In the spring and summer of 2020, the pandemic made the world a captive audience to the lynching of George Floyd by police officer, Derek Chauvin. A lynching which resulted in uprisings across the country and world. However, as these uprisings unfolded, police across the United States continued to target, abuse, and murder African Americans. On top of this, reports of five or more Black males found hanging from trees in different states, two of which were in New York City. Instead of acknowledging the timing and placement of these deaths (which should have been labeled — to say the least — as concerning, nor implementing political action that would produce immediate material results, Mayor De Blasio chose to rush to Trump Tower and paint “Black Lives Matter” on the street out front.
Performance politics were the extent of the Mayor’s action for Black Americans, to liberalize his conspicuous avoidance of the hanging deaths amidst large-scale social crisis and how quickly they were determined to be a “suicide.” In fact, all of the hangings were immediately labeled this way — by the police who arrived as each scene.
Given how present “Black Lives Matter” activism is in American culture, it’s no surprise that someone as problematic as De Blasio would think he could hide behind painted linguistic symbolism and not materially address white terrorism. Not only does he use language — like all other politicians — to avoid his complicity in the racial violence in our city, but the painting of words only adds a level of permanence to his performative political stunt. Meanwhile, blame continues to be put entirely on Trump as if the Democratic party and Joe Biden have not played a central role in creating and maintaining the same system which facilitated the lynching of George Floyd and countless other African Americans and the hand of police since the 1970’s; and since the 18th century.
Democrat politicians in office will always say or tweet out “there is no room in our city for hate,” while, at the same time, they turn a blind eye to all of the anti-Black violence at the hands of cops and citizens — of all races. They stay true to the Founding Fathers decree of “all Men” being created equal, but by “Men” they only meant “white.”
In White affects, Bucholtz talks about how sociocultural linguists can use their discipline to analyze language and power but explains that they are not trained to “dismantle white supremacy” and this has lead to the inability of linguists to contribute substantially to social and racial justice. She also cites Mark Lewis’s critique of William Labov’s principle of error correction (1982), which Lewis says fell short by thinking that the “expertise” of “sociolinguists would eradicate racist educational policy.” As we know today, educated and informed people can still be racist and perpetuate whiteness consciously or unconsciously. Even writing in the eighties, this idea of “error-correcting” racism through education was missing the mark, particularly given the critical race theory scholarship from Derrick Bell and others of the time.
The belief that education and integration would lead to a post-racial society shows a lack of awareness that educational institutions are merely extensions of the state and designed to neutralize any threat to the status quo within their curriculums. Not to mention the deep-rooted connections American universities have to slavery and colonialism; a relationship that did not magically disappear after integration.
It is important that we — whether linguistic anthropologists, lay people, or activists — pay attention to how the language of slavery and mercantilism persist within American English and other white colonizer languages today. If we are going to talk about the reach and limits of language in regards to whiteness and power, then we need to start talking more commonly about the cannibalistic characteristics and behaviors of whiteness (Woodward 2014, Ko 2019); the ways that our white culture is psychopathic (Wright, 1994); how our economic system was built from and fueled by African American women’s “capitalized womb[s]” (Sublette, 2016), and various other ways that our colonial past still operates today through language and policy.
Bucholtz quotes from Robin DiAngelo’s “White Fragility” (2011) when she really should be quoting Carol Anderson’s “White Rage” (2016). We should be talking less about white people’s feelings or frailties and more about the integral role that white violence has played in maintaining a white nation and securing all of the Black social death (Patterson 1998) that it requires to run. Historically, that violence has taken many forms: sexual, psychological, economic, etc; and it should all be understood as terrorism. Police violence is white racial violence and indeed terrorism, but so were the policies that were created to deliberately eject and exclude African Americans from fully participating in the economy. White rage has been a primary means of creating and ensuring a steady stream of Black social death for the cannibal nation. Likewise, the avoidance of facts by ordinary white people is also violence. Avoidance, silence, and liberal acquiescence is equally violent. All White people are complicit.
The system of white supremacy gives the power to define violence to those who willfully uphold and carry out its designs. Under current late-stage liberalism, new “diverse” and “inclusive” faces for whiteness have been gradually vetted and put into places of political power. Politicians who have aligned themselves with the status quo, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortes, “the squad” and Ritchie Torres, are the new face of that status quo. When countless Americans were criticizing Ocasio-Cortes over her conspicuous avoidance of the cries for “Medicaid For All” she called it “violence.” When questioned about Reparations to the descendants of US chattel slavery, Ocasio-Cortes questioned what is “Black” and who really falls under that category?; just one of many anti-Black actions she has taken since getting a seat in Congress.
After months of parroting the platitudes of President Biden, Ritchie Torres came out in support of the ongoing attacks on Syria at the hands of Israel; a white nation that Torres said has the right to “safety and sovereignty.” Torres further aligns himself with white people and white supremacy by also participating in the blame-the-other-side for that which you are guilty tactic, by claiming the “attacks” on “Israel” are also “on truth itself.” According to Torres, anyone who claims that Syrians are humans who have rights to life are participating in an “Orwellian universe where truth no longer matters”; something that he himself is guilty of in his article for the New York Post. A collection of statements with conspicuously omitted facts, easily discernible due to all of the honest content by actual journalists like Max Blumenthal, Glen Greenwald, and Abby Martin. Torres has clearly been trained well by his white handlers and donors, and it’s exemplified by how he names his critics a “mob.” Imagine he was as passionate about bringing real change to The Bronx as he is about US Imperialism.
‘Language’ is a tool of power and — when needed — erasure. In 2018, Carol Anderson gave a lecture about “White Rage” at Emory University, where she is the Charles Howard Chandler Professor and Chair of Africana Studies. She opened her lecture with the topic of police violence. At the beginning of the lecture, Anderson describes when former New York City Mayor, Rudy Giuliani, was interviewed after the NYPD lynched Amadou Diallo. Anderson added to this:
“I know something is wrong, but I don’t know how to name it…and you know we have to name things in order to be able to face them, to deal with them.”
Anderson also invokes the power of language when she describes first seeing Ferguson, MO on fire after the lynching of Mike Brown by — of course — the police. To divert attention from white complicity in the lynching of Mike Brown, the media immediately initiated narratives of erasure. Anderson acted out the typical responses we hear all the time:
“Look at Black folks buring up where they live…Did you know that Black folks were burning up where they live?…Black folks are burning up where they live!”
Narratives of erasure change the direction of our focus and they also activate imbedded, dormant emotional triggers and (il)logics that are programmed in the collective white American psyche. White America is designed and trained to use language to alter narratives about reality and also the reality we chose to paint in our own heads.
During the Diallo interview, Giuliani celebrated New York City’s “broken windows” Black code program and how successful it had been. He said that his NYPD were “the most restrained and best behaved” in response to them firing 41 bullets at an unarmed man (common practice when those unarmed men are Black). Regardless of how many New Yorker’s who see with our own eyes the crimes against humanity that the NYPD has committed, a language of psychological dissoance is still employed. The white psyche is in constant conflict with and denial of reality; because reality threatens the validity of whiteness — the false identity we are raised to believe in. Let us also compare this to Mayor De Blasio’s 2020 ‘BLM’ street painting performance in lieu of policy to protect African Americans and other Black New Yorkers: When white America needs Black bodies for fuel, languge is used to immediately create and impliment policy; when that predatory economic logic is exposed, language is used to avoid making policy that could protect Black bodies.
When Giuliani presented data that revealed a “decrease in crime”, he also revealed how disposable Black people are in the process of convincing white America that they are safe. But “safety” is just another code word; one that is directly associated with a level of control over African Americans and other Black people. We know this for many reasons; but in the case of Giuliani, we know “safety” is racialized because he if was actually interested in protecting the lives of citizens, he would not have made all of the moves that contributed to the fire fighter deaths at the World Trade Center on 9/11.
White narratives of erasure are used every day and in every way imagineable.
In order for language to assist us in overturning white supremacy we need to talk more about (1) how white people, culturally, are sociopaths (2) why that translates into white violence and (3) how it was/is used to hold onto power.
Whiteness is parasitic and destructive. The late Vincent Woodward’s work on human consumption in US slave culture was cited in the recent work of Black feminist and activist Aph Ko (2019) who utilizes the framework of cannibalism in her language when explaining whiteness, in order to be better activists and fighters for racial justice. One way she does this is by analyzing the themes of human consumption and the white desire for Black flesh in the movie “Get Out,” along with the themes of racism and resistance through the lense of “animality” in the film which, of course, is historically tied to white America’s willfully dishonest misrepresentations of Black people:
“In Get Out, the grammar system for colonialism is consumption — the act of reducing beings to mere flesh to be eaten and/or manipulated. This is how the racial system communicates its power. Animal is a part of the vocabulary of white supremacist violence; it signifies the rhetorical and social branding of certain bodies, which white supremacy wants to consume, exploit, and eliminate without question…If we can acknowledge the zoological dimensions of white supremacy, then we can ‘read’ the expressions of animal violence in Get Out as part of the racial landscape” (p. 99). White America is a cannibal nation, and its victims are consumed to strengthen the project of whiteness. From members of their own cultures — that would be conquered and enslaved — to digestible versions that are palatable to white taste and sensibility.
Whiteness is an identity of illogic, and therefore, the language, racism and methods it uses to constantly regenerate itself rejects and resists the scientific logics of “rationality, empiricism, [and] objectivity” (Bucholtz 2018). Today the language of whiteness continues its mission of aggressive consumption of that which would expose or invalidate its existence.
In 2020, President Trump signed the “1776 Commission” to reinforce a “Patriotic Education” which would mandate the removal of any teaching of history through an honest lense; meaning the truth telling about the centrality of slavery and racism to the United States and its culture. To instead uplift narratives that perpetuate the lie that our country has no systemic racism and that all people have a fair and equal chance to succeed. Narratives which are integral to the survival of whiteness. Trump’s ‘1776 commission’ was an actual attack on history, truth, and language. But, at the same time, forcing anything new onto white America — without any protections from their violent rage that typically follows — would only add to the cycle that is already in motion. President Biden may have dissolved the ‘1776 commission’ but has done nothing about white violence, in or out of institutions of education or anywhere else in our country.
Bucholtz explains that Mark Lewis believes that “in order to foster social justice, sociocultural linguistics must shift from a liberal perpsective of benevolent scientific objectivity to a more politically engaged stance” through “the spirit of critical and collaborative reflexivity within sociolinguistics.” However, Bucholtz is also concerned that social change will require the collective work of linguistics “across fields” and “beyond academia” in order to have a more critical understanding of “other’s failure and limitations.”
Bucholtz concludes by saying: “We need to learn from and make common sense cause with scholars, activists, and community members focused on the racist legacies of settler colonialism, chattel slavery, and genocide, including educational inequality, economic disparities, and state-sponsored violence” (2018). Bucholtz is right, but clearly there is a lot of bad education and propaganda to work through, in and out of academia, politics, and our personal friend/family circles.
Understanding that “redressing linguistic inequality on its own cannot redress racial inequality” is important for navigating performance politics of multiculturalism in late-stage liberalism.
Applying what Bucholtz said about street signs like ‘Indio Muerto”, what difference does it make if a organization calls itself “Black Lives Matter” if it is just a front for the Democratic Party — the anti-Black, pro-slavery minstrel party since 1828. How much change will it bring to build a movement from the deaths of primarily heterosexual Black males if said movement ignores explicitly advocating for the rights and protections of heterosexual Black males? Is “diversity” and the “inclusion” perpetuating the erasure of the Black demographic that is the most represented in the data that reveals who is targeted by police, the prison industrial complex; the flesh-hunger of white America?
How successful can we be in dismantling the system of white supremacy if the “inclusion” of white women in politics is considered “diversity”? Are we supposed to think that the presence of “brown” women “of color” in the White House, congress, or local political office automatically means “change” if they are politically aligned with anti-Black racists who have been implementing Jim Crow policies for over fifty years?…or if nothing about Neocolonialism has changed? What progress will come if the system of white supremacy is responsible for picking its “diverse” representations?
Linguistics should definitely help us understand how words and meaning reinforce and perpetuate anti-Blackness and other oppressions, but this also needs to include the understanding that “Make America Great Again” and “Build Back Better” mean the same thing.
- Anderson, Benedict. “Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism”. Verso, London. 1983.
- Anderson, Carol. “White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide”, Bloomsbury. 2016.
- Bucholtz, Mary. “White affects and sociolinguistic activism”, Language and Society 47(3). 2018.
- DiAngelo, Robin. “White fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism”, Beacon Press. 2018
- Sublette, Ned & Constance. “The American Slave Coast: A History of the Slave-Breeding Industry”, Lawrence Hill Books. 2016.
- Sun Ra lectures (linked in text)
- Patterson, Orlando. “Rituals of Blood: Consequences of Slavery in Two American Centuries”, Basic Civitas Books. 1998.
- Povinelli, Elizabeth A. “Economies of Abandonment: Social Belonging and Endurance in Late Liberalism”, Duke University Press. 2011.
- Woodward, Vincent. “The Delectable Negro: Human Consumption and Homoeroticism within US Slave Culture”, NYU Press. 2014.
- Wright, Bobby E. “The Psychopathic Racial Personality and other essays”, Third World Press, Chicago. 1984
- Ko, Aph. “Racism As Zoological Witchcraft: A Guide to Getting Out”, Lantern Books. 2019.
- Torrés, Ritchie. “Here’s why I’m supporting Israel — despite the Twitter mob”, nypost.com. 2021