Coded-Language: Community, Diversity, and Other Racist Words

Community isn’t a racist word, you are thinking. And, I mean, diversity, that’s a good word, right?

Alright, here’s the deal. The words aren’t themselves racist. Their original meanings do not have particularly racially divisive roots. We have turned these words on their heads, imbuing them with racist connotations. We often use words to hide our discomfort with race, often supporting the status quo. In essence, not discussing race propagates racism.

Dr. Porchia Moore has spoken and written eloquently about the word diversity, so I will not replicate her work. Instead, I would like to focus on ways that you can understand that you are using coded language.

On Communication

Communication is more complicated than the words being used. Consider when you are learning to speak a new language. Think of trying to say a phrase like I am hungry. This is a phrase you have either said or thought numerous times in your native language, putting words to one of the most basic of human urgese. Now, in Hindi class, say, you learn that you would say Mujhe bhookh lagee hai, or translated loosely, hunger strikes me. The same feeling of hunger is being described as an attack in Hindi while seen as a possession in English.

How can that be? Language is an approximation of meaning. Human experiences can be particularly challenging to capture in words. The problems with language are exponential. People are individuals, each with slightly different reads on anything. Invite two people to describe the same experience using emotional and descriptive language. Beyond basic facts, their accounts will certainly differ. People’s emotional differences are heightened by their educational and cultural backgrounds. Just in terms of vocabularly, people who attain higher levels of education will have access to more words.

While vocabularly might not seem like an issue of equity, let’s return to the issue at hand. Coded language is the use of words so as to include layers of meaning. The use of coded language allows the speaker to relate meaning without being specific. Politicians and the alt-right are particularly skilled at using coded language. The most famous recent use of coded language might be Trump’s battle cry, “Make America Great Again.” His followers clearly understood the phrase to mean that Trump could return the nation to a better time in our past, say one when whites were unquestionably in power.

Understanding Coded Language

Do you want to use language in the same way as such esteemed company as Trump? I certainly don’t. How do you know when you are? Take this example:

Leader: We are excited to work with the community on this program. It will help them see how great our organization is, and we will be to create great impact. The community will be improved by our actions.

Worker: How will you do this?

Leader: We talked to the community. They told us that we are doing plenty wrong. We will try to improve for them; they deserve this.

“Community” is most often associated with racial minority and/or socio-economically challenged groups. People use the word to mask their discomfort or their disconnectedness. In this interchange, notice how the leader consistently uses community as a term for a group that does not include her. The “we” she discusses is an organization that is serving a group of people that she calls “the community.”

Additionally, she is careful not to describe the community too specifically. A community is a collective term for a group of people brought together by a certain association, say race, geography, religion. Most people are members of many communities. Therefore, the lack of descriptive terms before the community is a tell. There are descriptor words that she is implying. If we were that worker, we would know what words are silent, because they would certainly be screamingly obvious in context.

Check yourself

When you are using words, particularly jargon, question yourself. What do you mean by that word? Does using that word share your meaning or does it hide your meaning?

Sometimes the word still works. For example, you might be talking about your own community; no word works better in that context. Or you might be diverse, in terms of varied, like I use a diverse range of colors in my paintings.

But, very often, you might be hiding your meaning. I am certainly guilty of doing this. Anyone who has worked with donors or foundations knows that eliptical language is the norm in the field. But, true change cannot happen culturally unless we say what we really mean.