You may have been led to believe that language connects people. However, in a class-based society–like the one in the United States– language mainly serves the purpose of reinforcing the amount of power each of us has in our class. Words in capitalist society become weapons of class warfare. Either our language challenges the existing power structure, or it expresses our class advantage from above, which we use to keep those with less power in check.
As a result, our uses of language will tend to create a reaction, not a connection. That is, language which threatens the status quo (or the unequal power held within the class categories of race, gender, sexuality, citizenship, religion, wealth, etc.) creates a negative connection: it meets an opposite force which is repulsed by this challenge to its power.
While the idealistic goal of progressive movements is to educate the oppressor about our oppressive behavior, the uses of language by an oppressed community may have the exact opposite effect on us, by creating a reaction of even greater violence than we showed before. The oppressor isn’t ignorant about the uses of our unequal amount of power, or about the damage inflicted on oppressed communities by us; we– white people– are ignorant about the consequences to us if we don’t stop our violent behavior. That’s what we need to learn. But how?
The best lesson that white colonizers in the United States could ever learn about white supremacy is to be killed, and to keep on being killed, until we got off the lands of colonized peoples and went back to Europe. Of course, that’s not going to happen any time soon, because that’s a lesson colonized people are not willing or not able to teach us right now. And the population of white colonizers in the United States won’t ever be ready to take that kind of test. However, that would be the most educational way for us to learn. It would teach us how to work– how to work and struggle on our own land, developing our own resources, and solving our own problems– rather than trying to fix the problems of the globe by making them worse for everyone else.
The people who have the greatest amount of power in the world– whites in general, but particularly cisgender white men– also have the greatest fear of “tyranny,” and of an attack on their “freedom of speech” by “politically correct” “thought police.” We might be tempted to say to the cisgender white men who hold these reactionary views (whether libertarian, liberal or conservative): “Don’t be afraid, we just want freedom too, like you have.” But it’s not freedom that they are trying to protect, it’s power. It’s not the behavior of the individual who has all this “liberty” that they are defending to the death, but, instead, the class power within democratic capitalism that elevates whites– particularly cisgender whites– at the expense of the global majority. Those with greater power don’t fear that an “authoritarian” socialist government will tread on their rights, but that it will take away their power, which has stomped on the masses of the world for centuries.
And this is why cisgender whites don’t understand terminology like “transphobia” and “transphobic.” They are reacting to a perceived threat to their power, and, in turn, they use language to defend the terrain that they have conquered. Yet this occupied terrain or territory, leading to a war of words, isn’t based on ideology, but on an actual physical space: land. Indigenous land. Land belonging to Native peoples. Without the violent occupation of Native land in North America (and Hawaii), and the violent removal of Africans from their land, and the genocidal extraction of labor, resources and culture from oppressed peoples in order to build up the power and wealth of these settler colonies of Europe, there wouldn’t be any Canada, or any United States, or any U.S. Constitution– and, obviously, there wouldn’t be any “Bill of Rights,” with its individual freedoms needing to be defended to the death by transphobic white men. The objective or material basis for “freedom of speech” in the United States– or Canada, because these are both settler colonies built on genocide and capitalism– is violence against Africans, and violence against Native peoples and the global majority (so-called people of color).
This colonial violence by the ruling classes of the United States and Canada, as well as all other European nations, benefits the general white population in each territory. But the imperialist thrust of capitalism is also misogynistic, transphobic, homophobic, ableist, and Islamophobic, in addition to white supremacist– terminology which is practically meaningless to the cisgender white men who benefit the most from capitalism’s arrangement of white supremacy. What they are paying attention to– as far as this language is concerned– is the perceived threat to their greater power, an imagined threat which is coming from identities who have been historically marginalized under the violent arrangement of capitalism. And, in a sense, they should be afraid. Anyone who has an unequal amount of power– because they have stolen it through extreme violence– ought to be afraid of the consequences of their violent behavior. And the best way to teach them what it means to gain greater power through violence is to move against them with even more violence.
Everyone wants to feel safe. This is a natural wish on our part because, at the time we were little children, we were entirely helpless on our own, and entirely dependent on the people around us to protect us from our environment and allow us to develop and reach adulthood. We may have learned what it means to feel secure from our parent(s) and other family members, from teachers in school, and from our neighbors– or we may have learned to be scared of them because they created an environment of hostility, violence, and insecurity. Either way, we constantly seek to feel some kind of safety. And so we may ask: how is it that Europeans, or whites, who are living so far from our homelands in Europe, could feel safe and comfortable– at whatever level we feel it– on the North American continent and Hawaii? And Australia? And South Africa? And Israel?
Why would a European settler feel safe anywhere in the world outside Europe? Because of power. Not individual power, but the power belonging to the category of class– or our whiteness– within a global system of power: capitalism.
So the problem for whites in “America” (or Canada) is that we feel too safe. And this smugness on our part leads to ignorance about the consequences of our violent behavior, or the actions of an imperialist nation-state that we support through its process called “democracy”– by “getting out the vote” and “exercising our sacred rights.” Now we start to talk about “equal rights” for “minorities,” and about including more individuals in the process of democratic capitalism.
And, if we belong to the class category of whiteness, and we are women and/or transgender, we start looking at the sort of comfort, wealth and security that the white cisgender man has, and we say that we want to be like him and enjoy the same benefits that he enjoys. Except we won’t say that we want to frighten him, and make him less comfortable, or that we want to take his place– we argue that there’s plenty of that good stuff to go around. But there’s only plenty– for white colonizers, that is– if the present arrangement of power, which benefits cisgender white men the most, remains intact.
“American democracy” only can function through greater and greater levels of imperialist violence and capitalist exploitation against the rest of the world: including more racism, more sexism, more transphobia. However, the “progressive” white person in the United States and Canada wants to avoid violence at all costs– that is, violence against whiteness. So we continue to play by the rules of the cisgender white men who established capitalist democracy in North America, and the Constitution and the “Bill of Rights,” and who created universities on occupied lands of First Nations peoples in Canada where a transphobic professor of psychology can feel safe committing more violence. And what if he feels threatened? Then the white “LGBTQ community” may believe that we’ve gone too far in our protests against him, not because we value human rights, but because we value the safety of whiteness.
If we really want to be taught a lesson about what it means to value human rights, or just to be a decent human being, the white colonial populations of the United States and Canada– and anywhere else on the globe– should experience the same violence that we’ve been dishing out. That may sound harsh. But it’s not the violence itself that’s educational, any more than transphobic language is itself the problem. It’s how we react to this violence; or how we transcend it, and create revolutionary solutions.
The shape of the struggle to resolve a conflict determines the shape of its solution. If the only solution– or resolution– to our problems is more capitalist violence, more white supremacy, and more imperialism, then the majority of the world will continue to suffer the worst consequences of these resolutions to white people’s problems as we react to them. Europeans mainly wish to feel safe and to develop and grow. And, once we feel threatened by our unstable conditions, we then seek to resolve each crisis of ours by using the means placed before us by global capitalism (the only means backed by any power), as part of a reactionary process which is leading to gentrification, the prison-industrial complex, greater violence against women and girls of color, and yet another murder of a Black trans woman. And then we fail to make the connections between these types of violence and our own freedom from violence.
Let’s say “the most racist type of white person” does exist in the United States. If so, we usually point to the white person who exists on the fringes of white society, and goes to rallies for “the alt-right” or belongs to neo-Nazi organizations, and tries to attack Black people (and Muslims, Jews, Latinxs and Indigenous people). Sometimes, when we’re attempting to describe the most racist type of white in this country, we look at the white person who experiences the greatest amount of capitalist exploitation– a “working class” or “poor” white who is going through “economic anxiety.” However, this seems backwards. The most racism isn’t to be found among whites who feel the most threatened by Africans/Black people and so-called people of color. The most racism is found among whites who feel the least threatened– or the most comfortable on stolen land, the most safe existing off the stolen resources, labor and culture of the world. That may be why Portland, Oregon is often considered– by people of color– to be one of the most racist cities in “America.” Which is to say, it’s where so-called people of color feel the least safe, perhaps because the good white (racist) liberal feels the most safe.
But what does this have to do with language and its uses? When it comes to learning about our racism as white people, or the transphobia of cisgender whites, it’s not a question of “having a conversation,” either about “race” or gender. The text of these exchanges always has a context, and the context of language about “race” or gender or any other political category in a society where classes hold unequal power is colonialism. Words exist in this terrain, like individuals, as part of a colonial context. Therefore, our uses of language become a reaction to threats against our power, coming from below (from colonized Africans and Indigenous communities) or coming from above (the white or European settler population). The ideas that grow out of this clash of unequal power reflect the antagonistic conditions controlled by a system which requires whites to sit– comfortably or otherwise– on top of the subjugated African community of the globe. In such an arrangement of power, words do not connect us, except to inflict harm on the most marginalized of society. There can be no such thing as “freedom of speech” in a society where only one group or class of people is free. Forget the U.S. Constitution and its Bill of [White] Rights– those words are just garbage, useless.
Whenever cisgender white men are talking about “authoritarian” threats to their “freedom of speech,” they are really talking about not wanting to give up their greater advantage power. Only one system has the authority to impose this unequal political, economic and social arrangement on the masses of the people: colonial capitalism. Cisgender white men, who are the minority in this arrangement, feel threatened (or less safe) on account of resistance– not just to language, to words– but to the greater power and unequal advantage on their part.
And all white people (not just cis whites) need to become a whole lot more afraid than we are right now, because this threat to the security of whiteness would be a reflection of material progress. Any fear of volatility, of massive disruptions and violence against whiteness reflects a measurable change in the balance of power, as the global majority– oppressed Africans everywhere and “people of color”– teach us, through revolutionary struggle, this valuable lesson of what it means to be human … or to live, truly free, and be empowered to develop as a person who is part of a community.