As somebody who does research at the intersection of language and race I am often accused of not doing “real” linguistics. These accusers imagine linguistics to be an objective science and language to be a series of disembodied features separated from actual people. For these people, any political advocacy work is at best something that is done outside of one’s identity as a linguist and at worse a liability that is a threat to one’s objectivity. Aligned with this perspective, these accusers would argue that the current political protests occurring in response to the police murder of George Floyd is outside of the scope of linguistics as an area of scholarly inquiry. I would argue that it is not only well within the scope of linguistics but also offers an opportunity for us to critically interrogate the anti-Blackness that permeates the field.
The current political moment points to the inherent anti-Blackness of frameworks that suggest that language can be studied separately from the bodies who use them. This is seen very clearly in the contrasting perceptions of the predominantly white people protesting stay-at-home orders and the predominantly Black people protesting George Floyd’s murder. In one notable case, a group of armed white protestors were permitted to enter the Michigan statehouse to protest the governor’s extension of the state’s emergency order with no violent response from the police officers there charged with protecting the building and the politicians inside. President Trump even tweeted in support of the protestors through calls to “liberate Michigan!” and calls for the governor to “give a little, and put out the fire. These are very good people, but they are angry.” In contrast, the police response to Black protestors has been much more aggressive with police officers refusing to engage in the de-escalation strategies that they quite effectively used in response to white protestors. In addition, President Trump referred to these Black protestors as “thugs” and threatened violent retaliation through the use of the phrase made famous by the white supremacist presidential candidate George Wallace “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
In these examples, both the police officers and President Trump are inhabiting the role of the white perceiving subject that frames Black bodies as inherently criminal and white bodies as inherently good even when they are engaged in similar behaviors. By white perceiving subject I am not referring to individuals per se but rather their institutional positions. That is, while not all of the police officers involved in these contrasting responses may be white, their position as agents charged to protect the interests of dominant elites who have accumulated their wealth through white settler colonialism and the enslavement and continued exploitation of Black populations, socializes them into these same hegemonic modes of perception. While these hegemonic perceptions are not new, they have been further legitimized and emboldened by a president who has directly and explicitly embraced white supremacy.
It is the anti-Blackness of the white perceiving subject that provides the foundation for the raciolinguistic ideologies that frame Black language practices as deficient and in need of remediation. By Black language practices I do not solely mean features that have historically been associated with African American Language as documented in sociolinguistics—one of the few areas of linguistics that has grappled with issues of race. After all, white people often appropriate these same linguistic features in order to gain social currency in their predominantly white social networks. Instead, what I mean is any language practices that a Black person uses. That is, the inherent criminality associated with Blackness by the white perceiving subject frames any utterance a Black person makes as potentially dangerous and in need of regulation. The logical conclusion to these raciolinguistic ideologies is state violence against Black people.
Insisting that such an analysis is outside of the scope of linguistics is anti-Black. It is anti-Black both in the ways that it refuses to grapple with the inextricability of language and race and by the ways that it serves to keep out of the field Black people who refuse to accept this erasure of their experiences. The apt question that we should be asking as a field is not why Black people don’t feel comfortable in linguistics but rather why white people feel so comfortable in linguistics. The short answer is that the foundational assumption of the field that you can remove language from bodies is steeped in whiteness and allows primarily white linguists to avoid grappling with their own complicity in maintaining white supremacy.
Like everybody else, there are many things that linguists can do to fight back against anti-Black state violence. We can participate in protests. We can engage in conversations with families and friends. We can donate money to Black-led community groups who are leading the organized resistance. But we must do this in ways that also acknowledge our fields continued complicity in reifying the anti-Blackness that makes this state violence possible to begin with. It is not enough for linguists to assume that anti-Blackness is an ideology that exists “out there” making it optional to address in our own backyard.