White Privilege in English Language Today

For a while now I have been upset with the use of whitelist, blacklist, and white label in the current day rhetoric. I dare say the use of “black” and “white” in these terms are associated to “good” and “bad”. These terms are especially common in the tech and software industries. So why do we continue to use these terms that are obviously showing preference to white over black? American culture has been schooled to use “African American” instead of “black”. Why not take it a step further in political correctness. Or just get rid of this racist rhetoric all together.

Here is the list of words I believe have a birthplace in racial prejudice or past colonial idealism. Even if they do not, I will argue that the definition of these words seem to originate from white privilege.

  • Whitelist (whitelisting) — a list of approved or favored items
  • Blacklist (blacklisting) — a list of people or products viewed with suspicion or disapproval.
  • White Label — product is a product or service produced by one company that other companies rebrand to make it appear as if they had made it. Btw, this sounds like slavery in a corporate capacity.
  • White Paper — a government or authoritative report or informative review.
  • Blackball (blackballing) — reject (someone, usually a candidate applying to become a member of a private club), typically by means of a secret ballot.
  • Blackmail (blackmailing, blackmailer) — the action, treated as a criminal offense, of demanding money from a person in return for not revealing compromising or injurious information about that person.

Use of these words intend to denote preference for one over the other. Isn’t it possible that the common use of such terms affects us subconsciously; “white” in preference over “black” reinforcement. We know that whitelist is better than blacklist. White label is enterprise and descriptive of a market available to those who can afford the higher cost bracket. White paper having authority on information. In contrast, we do not want to be blackballed or blackmailed in our personal or professional lives. So, how does this connotation affect those who are black?

Those who are white or associate with being white have no quam. They are not affected. Perhaps the use of these words are so commonplace that it doesn’t bother the African American community…or does it? As a white woman, I don’t know how it would affect those of the African American or Africian communities. Though how could it not?!

At every conference, in a business meeting, and in casual conversation with a friend or family member we hear or refer to “black” as being a derogatory term. It’s just another form of racism that has been normalized. Never having to think of an alternative to use instead. So, why not? Why not change that?

Just to make it interesting, lets reverse the meaning. Think of it like this. I say that guy “white walled” me out of a job. What is the imagery that comes to mind? Is it a white wall? Is a white man? Is it a white man of lower or higher education than the one commenting? Does that make him better than me? I will give you the opportunity to define it on your own. The fact that I used the word “white” in a derogatory way automatically makes me think of the worst type of white person I know of…possibly one with power and obsessed with walls. Does that remind you of a certain President?

Funny enough, the only derogatory term with “white” in it is “white trash”. And the only reason it is negative is because it quite literally has the word “trash” tacked onto the end of it. Therefore, it doesn’t mean something fancy or nice. It is not nice. I am not referring to those who find pride in this term, for they can choose to like the term if they choose. I am referring to only the overall sense of the phrase and what it means to those who may not even know who is being described. Perhaps “whitewashed” is also derogatory, yet another term to describe the white privilege in hollywood casting.

So, what gives? Why change terms that have been used so long no one really takes offense to it. Not even the African American community may think it as a real issue. It might not be important to you, but it bugs the hell out of me. What’s so bad about starting a movement of responsible rhetoric? Starting with those who care about equality.

Words mean things. Words matter. And what we say has an impact on everyone around us. Most importantly it has an impact on ourselves. These words are what we have learned to say. What we have absorbed and blurted out without a second thought. Those who had an English class were taught these descriptions without questioning whether it was appropriate or not to begin with. Our society continues to use these words without regard to their subconscious meaning.

Personally, I’m tired of using words without thinking about them. Don’t get me wrong, I am no perfect person. Something will slip through my lips that I wish later I had the opportunity to re-do over again. Yet, recently I have apologized for such comments to the people who heard it. And the next time I want to describe something I will choose the alternatives in reference to the subject being discussed or described. Here are some options and alternatives, but not limited to:

  • Whitelist — Instead use: recommended, favored, or approved list. Safelist*
  • Blacklist (blacklisting) — Instead use: blocked, banned, or forbidden list. Blocklist*
  • White label — Instead use: resell, repackage, relabel. IMO Brandable sounds cool.
  • Blackball (blackballing) — Instead use: reject, debar, ban, or excluded

In the case of “blackmail” being a term used in court and legal cases, this might be more difficult to change. Yet, in recent years and most legal cases, blackmail and extortion are pretty much treated the same way. It seems as though blackmail can be extortion, though not the other way around. In the past extortion was only used to describe a crime against those in political office. Now it could be used to describe private individuals or businesses. So why not use extortion or coercion?

While researching this article I stumbled on a post: Alternatives to Whitelist and Blacklist*. A technology business asked for alternatives. Upset individuals felt the change in rhetoric wasn’t necessary and gave their two cents. One commenter argued that we may as well omit the words “woman and man” in the english language. This isn’t comparable to “whitelist and blacklist” noun and verb use. Now, say woman-list or man-list then we could have that conversation. Another commenter believes these terms came from “white and black dualism”, a purist in the colors white and black only, expressing contrast alone, not having to do with ethnicity. Yet, that does not address my original point that the use of the word “white” is positive, while the use of “black” is generally negative as shown in this word list. I personally believe without much research that these terms were from the times of colonialism and therefore inherited from a time where prejudice had a predominate role to play in what was acceptable in society. Language was written by our past, a society that thought whitewashing and slavery was a perfectly OK thing to do. Along with the idea that there is no such thing as white privilege.

I beg to differ. Those who feel whitewashing is a OK thing to do…this article is not for you. In contrast, this is an action to support a movement already in progress, #blacklivesmatter, human rights, and equality. Those who would like to join me, please pass this article along to those who want to be the change they want to see in the world. I find that this type of self-improvement can only lead to conscious vernacular. As PC as it sounds, it is far from political. This is an ethical introspective and understanding of subliminal messages we may have never questioned before.

If there are other words or phrases that can be added to this list, please provide your word addition and reason why in the comments below.

I hope that in pursuit of responsible talk, it can slowly persuade a positive change in the world. Change is good. Thinking before you talk is great. And using non-offensive alternatives over old and dated phrases is awesome.