Learning the New Language of Racism

The natural human desire is to avoid and deny things that are painful.

Posted Aug 15, 2016

by Jonathan W. Kanter, Ph.D. and Daniel C. Rosen Ph.D., guest contributors

Dr. Jonathan Kanter and Dr. Daniel C. Rosen
Source: Author

We recently published a blog post titled, What Well-Intentioned White People Can Do About Racism, and proposed five scientifically informed suggestions to empower well-meaning white people to overcome confusion, defensiveness and despair around what to do about racism today in our society and begin a journey of learning (the new language of racism), acceptance (of difficult feelings around race and racism), exploration (of your own biases), commitment (to actively be a part of the solution), and connection (to form real relationships with others who are different from you).

This post is the first of five posts that briefly unpack each of those five suggestions.  Today we are discussing the importance of learning the new language of racism as the first step in this journey. 

Language is our foundation

The foundation of any collective action, of any community, is language.  Language influences how we feel and how we react to things.  Even more importantly – language influences how we understand things, what they mean to us, and how we relate to one another.  

Let’s start with the word “racism.”  Certain accusations in our language are so pejorative, so awful, that it is almost impossible to tolerate the accusation, and being called a racist is one of those accusations. It is even worse to admit that the accusation is true, especially in legal contexts, or in the court of public opinion.  In our inability to tolerate the thoughts, feelings and potential negative consequences that come with the word, we avoid the whole thing as much as possible.

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Some have said that racism is like cancer. Though an imperfect comparison, we know from personal experience that if a doctor tells you that you or someone you love has cancer, your first reaction might be to deny, avoid, or try to make it all go away. But to survive, eventually you will have to open up to the word, explore it, and understand how it applies to you and your loved ones.  During the course of cancer treatment, you will be required to get a serious education, to learn all the facts and subtleties, to become an expert.

Racism is like that.  We all need to overcome the knee-jerk reaction to the word, the natural human desire to avoid and deny. Instead, we need to start learning.  We all need to understand the new language of racism, to improve self-awareness and facilitate personal growth, and to communicate effectively. 

How good is your vocabulary?

Engaging in meaningful work around racism requires both understanding ourselves and effectively communicating with others. To do either, fluency in a useful vocabulary provides us the building blocks to participate. Here are some questions about the new language of racism.  How good is your vocabulary?

Do you know the difference between explicit and implicit prejudice?  Do you understand the difference between defining race as a biological reality versus a sociopolitical construct? Do you know the differences between race, ethnicity, and culture?  Do you know what every initial and symbol in LGBTQIA+ means, and why they are all together? Do you understand why colorblindness is seen as part of the problem of racism? Do you know what colorism is?  Do you understand when people debate the difference between whiteness, white privilege, and white fragility?  Are you aware of microaggressions, and do you notice when they occur around you? Do you notice your own?

Educate yourself

Do you know the answers to each of these questions, and how each one relates to racism? No? No problem. There is no prize for a “correct” number of answers – this is not one of those quizzes. The idea here is to value the process of learning, and to open up opportunities for connection. Without this knowledge, misunderstandings and obstacles to connection seem to occur more frequently.

Take the term "colorblindness," for example.  Many white people were taught well-intentioned values as children, and part of that set of values is that you should not even “see” people’s skin color and that you should treat everyone the same.  We are all God’s children, and such.  So, based on your history, you may have come to believe that being "colorblind" is a good thing – in fact, that focusing on a person's skin color is the problem. 

But the language (and science, see Neville, Lilly, Duran, Lee, & Browne, 2000) of modern racism emphasizes significant downsides to colorblindness. It has the unintended effects of both invalidating fundamental aspects of someone's identity (for example, “I don’t even see you as…”) and sweeping under the carpet the differences that exist between people that have created unequal pain and suffering, or privilege.  Colorblindness is associated with passivity about racial justice and increased racial prejudice.  Does a white woman not want to be recognized as a woman?  Does a Jewish man not want to be recognized as Jewish? Or a man?  Yes, it is important to find our common humanity, the threads that bind us all together across the globe, but most of us also want our differences – including our challenges, histories, and accomplishments – seen and recognized by others. That is what allows us to feel understood. So is it important that you can recite a full definition of the term “colorblind?” Probably not. But we do believe that understanding ideas related to this term are likely to facilitate connections (or disconnections) between people.

In most communities, there are various diversity workshops and lectures available free to the public.  These are terrific speakers who have devoted their lives to educating the public about important issues surrounding diversity and the new language of racism.  Go to them, often. Go with friends, or on a date night even.

Also, you can educate yourself easily on the web.  A quick search on any of the questions above is likely to provide useful information. Additionally, many great resources exist, including: www.raceforward.org, www.racialequitytools.org, and everydayfeminism.com. (If you are wondering why “everydayfeminism.com” is on our list of racism-related websites, or why the LGBTQIA+ acronym is one of our questions above, then add “What is intersectionality?” to the above list of questions.)

Learning this, or any, new language gives us access to understanding both the world around us and our own internal experiences. It is a starting place for engaging in meaning dialogue with others, reading and learning more, and developing your own analysis of what is happening in the world. Words are powerful, and our understanding of those words is often our entry point to meaningful engagement.

An important part of our education is learning exactly what people of color want and need.  Although of course it doesn’t represent all black opinions, consider learning the platform recently released by the Movement for Black Lives.  Whether you agree or disagree with all or some of the content, learning the language requires that we first seek to understand one another.  You might also notice that some of the content may challenge you and make you uncomfortable.  Our next post is on the importance of accepting discomfort, rather than letting it push you into avoidance and inaction.  It applies here.  

Learning the new language of racism is an ongoing process.  The language of racism evolves as scientists learn more about the processes that drive racism, as activists find new ways to clarify and describe the problems they observe and the solutions they seek, and as those who have experienced racism directly gain power, find their voices, and describe their first-person experiences.  All of this change is good.  It means that things are changing…that we are learning. 

So your first task is to embrace these changes in the language of racism and join the community of learners. 

What’s next?

Simply learning the language of racism is not enough.  Language empowers action, and actions that make a difference are our ultimate goal.  Our next post discusses one of the main obstacles to action – our feelings. 

Jonathan W. Kanter, Ph.D., is a Research Associate Professor and Director of the Center for the Science of Social Connection at the University of Washington.  Daniel C. Rosen, Ph.D., is Associate Professor and Co-Director of the Center for Social Justice and Diversity at Bastyr University.  The ideas expressed in this blog have been influenced by many sources, prominently two psychological treatments called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Functional Analytic Psychotherapy.

NEXT: Get better at accepting, rather than avoiding, difficult feelings surrounding race.


Neville, H. A., Lilly, R. L., Duran, G., Lee, R. M., & Browne, L. (2000). Construction and initial validation of the Color-Blind Racial Attitudes Scale (CoBRAS). Journal of Counseling Psychology, 47(1), 59-70.