We must retire the phrase alt-right.
The term comes from white nationalist Richard Spencer. It’s short for “alternative right,” an ideology that’s more than a conservative movement. It’s about preserving white identity in the face of “political correctness.” President Donald Trump is the movement’s patron saint. Senior White House adviser Steve Bannon is part of the cabal.
Basically, this is white supremacy. White nationalism. Last weekend we witnessed the movement as hatemongers displayed Nazi regalia and spewed violent threats in Charlottesville, Virginia. Using benign language like “alt-right” legitimizes its followers. Because they don’t wear white Ku Klux Klan robes, swapping out hoods for dapper gear or khakis, they give the impression they don’t “look” like racists.
As a journalist, language is obviously important to me. Journalists need to be precise. We need not shirk our responsibility as truth tellers in some misguided attempt to be objective. Discrimination is wrong, and the Society of Professional Journalists is using recent news events to tell journalists it’s perfectly fine to call out wrongdoing. Also the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank, offered some words of wisdom to reporters covering violence. “Be wary of subjective adjectives and unclear labels, like far-right or alt-right. Instead, describe what protesters were doing, what they were saying and what they were demanding.” Such as describe Nazi salutes, the carrying of Confederate flags.
This week’s dreadful events aside, contemplating language is something I try to be cognizant of as a local reporter. The Chicago press corps — like our counterparts around the country — must fend off coded language, dog whistles, classist and anti-people-of-color rhetoric. Faulty language cripples imagination and creativity. Wrong words also dehumanize people and their experiences.
I cover black neighborhoods. I grew up in one and know how stereotypes creep in. These communities are often characterized in terms of their deficits and not assets. For example, “vacant land” is used to describe empty lots in South or West Side communities like Englewood and Austin. Chicago architect and urban designer Marshall Brown once told me we call empty land “open space” in the suburbs. See the difference? One sounds foreboding, the other promising.
In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan vilified black women — Chicago black women specifically — by calling them “welfare queens.” That lazy image stuck. For that matter “inner city,” “food stamps,” “gang related” are euphemisms for black and brown people in cities. “Illegal aliens” sounds like space cadets from Mars who forgot their green cards. “Blue collar” and “working class” seem to be reserved for whites only these days, erasing the fact that blacks and Latinos have weathered de-industrialization just as long if not longer. Quick turn of phrases or overused words allow people to fill in the blanks with their own baggage.
I’ve had to challenge myself over labels and language. “Prostitute” or “sex worker?” Well, that depends on who I’m interviewing. I’ve used both of those terms erroneously based on feedback. I’ve now learned to use the appropriate language by asking women, survivors and activists what they prefer. I have to balance this knowing how awful and real sex trafficking is in the city and suburbs. But also understanding some people take pleasure in the sex industry. I’ve tried to stay away from nouns. And in this or other scenarios I must remember I am not an activist and adopting their language may not always be in the best interest of fairness or accuracy.
“Food desert” is another problematic term for many. It gained popularity in Chicago, and I’ve used it many times to describe areas lacking full-service grocery stores or healthy food options. I’ve even lived in one, so I like to think I knew what I was quoting. Over the years my reporting around “food deserts” really evolved to covering urban agriculture and activism around food justice. Two women who used to live and work in Chicago – LaDonna Redmond and Dara Cooper – challenged me. They work in food justice and chafe at the idea of using ecosystem descriptions for food. Lack of healthy food in black and/or low-income neighborhoods is just one issue around under-resourced communities. The food system is unequal, and capitalism and racism help shape that system.
I’ve also moved away from the word “minority.” Yes, there are more white people in this country than other races. But “majority” and “minority” perpetuate inequity by lumping together groups by using lesser-than language. In Chicago, our population is roughly a third each of black, Latino and white. Why then refer to people of color as minorities? Talk about power structure instead.
I try to check my biases. I also never want to do harm in my reporting, either to individuals or communities. I may not always succeed but as journalists we have to be willing to listen, evolve and learn from our mistakes.
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