However, we are not merely passive supplicants at the mercy of prelates imposing lexical fiats from on high. Not everything settles in. For example, we are seeing that proposals for group names are less likely to be embraced when imposed from outside the group itself. When the Rev. Jesse Jackson called for the use of “African American,” his status and authority in Black America were roughly equal to Oprah Winfrey’s today. “African American” would have been much less likely to get around if it had been proposed by academics or lesser-known activists.
That kind of imposition from the outside has meant that “Latinx,” a gender-neutral alternative to “Latino” and “Latina,” is hardly used by the people it purports to refer to. In 2020, Pew Research found that only 3 percent of Latinos use the term. “BIPOC” isn’t doing much better. Too often, we take terminology proposals from academics and journalists as if we will henceforth be penalized — even if only socially — for going against their prescriptions. But their suggestions do not automatically affect language as it is used by ordinary people making themselves understood casually and comfortably.
It can seem that way because academics and journalists do a disproportionate amount of public writing and talking. For example, I suspect that normal people will continue saying “master bedroom”; I certainly will. Thus, there is no need to bristle at the proliferation of “BIPOC” as some kind of glowering fiat. Very few BIPOCs use it, and as Amy Harmon reported last year for The Times, in one national poll, “more than twice as many white Democrats said they felt ‘very favorably’ toward ‘BIPOC’ as Americans who identify as any of the nonwhite racial categories it encompasses.” And that is unlikely to change.
Again, this doesn’t mean “BIPOC” is a failed term. It has simply become part of a burgeoning register of English favored primarily by certain professors and political activists. This is no more a problem than another register, the academese favored by many scholars of literature and the social sciences. People of this realm have a way of writing and even speaking to one another on academic subjects that seems almost exotic to the outsider. For example, the renowned critical theorist and University of California, Berkeley, professor Judith Butler was granted first place in the journal Philosophy and Literature’s tongue-in-cheek bad-writing contest in 1998 for her prose in a 1997 essay, “Further Reflections on Conversations of Our Time,” that included this passage:
The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.
I find it a little facile to dismiss this genre, even in jest, as simply bad writing. Its practitioners intend it as studiously objective and precise. And the main thing, despite how unaesthetic this writing may be, is that it has no effect on how most of us communicate. It’s an in-group practice that people look upon from the outside with a certain bemusement. It is a jargon.
People who refer to hegemony and structural totalities have a jargon. These days, there is what we could call, yes, a woke jargon. That is where “Latinx” and “BIPOC” live. These terms are not mistakes or misfires in not being taken up by most of the people they refer to, then. Who, after all, has an issue with there being jargons?