Some activists defend the focus on language, saying that the way people use words is not mere symbolism but is necessary to achieving justice.
“Saying something like, ‘Black people are less likely to get a loan from the bank,’ instead of saying, ‘Banks are less likely to give loans to Black people,’ might feel like it’s just me wording it differently,” Rashad Robinson, president of the racial justice organization Color of Change, said. “But ‘Black people are less likely to get a loan from the bank’ makes people ask themselves, ‘What’s wrong with Black people? Let’s get them financial literacy programs.’ The other way is saying, ‘What’s wrong with the banks?’”
Mr. Robinson added, “When you’ve been on the margin, being able to claim a language and a narrative and a set of words to express yourself is incredibly important.”
Still, some other self-identified liberals who said they care deeply about social justice feel uncomfortable with some of the changes and the pressure that can be associated with them.
Ms. O’Donnell of Chicago said that, especially when she is among other white, college-educated liberals, “I’m exhausted by the constant need to be wary or you’ll instantly be labeled racist or anti-trans.”
And Stephen Paisley of Ithaca, N.Y., said he cringed at hearing libraries described at an academic conference as “sites of violence,” which is intended to reflect biases in how their rare books collections are curated. Rather than language that “tries to guilt people into action,” he said, he wishes the message was “white people, too, suffer from living in a society in which racial injustices and inequities persist.”
Changing Language, Changing Views
Many of the words surfacing in today’s language debates are not new.
“Implicit bias” traces to the work of psychologists in the 1990s, when the field began to document the subconscious associations that cause people to harbor stereotypes. The effort to substitute “enslaved people” for “slaves” has been long advocated by many Black academics to emphasize the violence that defined American slavery and the humanity of those subjected to it, said Anne Charity Hudley, a linguist at Stanford.