The language of oppression

On Canada’s National Aboriginal Day, June 21st, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that the name of the day would be changed to National Indigenous People’s Day. I’m so old I remember when Aboriginal/Indigenous people were often referred to as Indians and half-breeds. In those days, people who were offended by such abuse used the term Native. 

Trudeau’s announcement formalized the fact that the term Aboriginal was starting to make a lot of people uncomfortable, leading them to substitute Indigenous. This sequence of events sounds familiar to me, because — though I’m Canadian to my fingertips — I was raised in the United States. I’m almost old enough to remember a time when the respectful way of referring to African American people was to call them Coloured.

In time, that term dropped out of currency and was replaced by Negro. As the American civil rights movement of the 1960s gained momentum, those of us who advocated civil rights became aware  that “Negro” didn’t sound polite any more and that many leaders of the civil rights movement were calling themselves Black.

But that didn’t last long. In time, Black was replaced by Afro-American, only itself to be superseded by African American. So what we have here are two groups of North Americans, burdened by histories of slavery and conquest respectively, both called by a different name every couple of decades or so. A student of politics is bound to ask: What’s going on here? Why are two groups with histories of oppression subjects of this curious similarity?

The question all but answers itself. Here, in any event, is my answer: Those of us who are neither Indigenous nor African American feel guilty, or at least uncomfortable, with the knowledge that our forefathers and mothers, were oppressors, and that we ourselves may well be continuing that oppression, or at least benefitting from it. Since we can’t, or won’t, bring that history to an end, we express our discomfort by changing the name of that which makes us uncomfortable.

So it isn’t just the oppressed who are burdened by a history of oppression. Oppressors and their descendants carry a burden of their own, not remotely comparable, but very real nonetheless.

4 responses to “The language of oppression

  1. This is wellstated and explains a lot to me.

  2. CIndy birdwise

    My comments were erased 3 times

  3. I have been around a while too and noted/participated in these changes of terminology. I think the process is a bit more complicated. I would describe it this way: the collective names for groups who are oppressed or marginalized come to have negative connotations because of racist attitudes and actual circumstances and the associated social and political status of the groups. Leaders of those groups react by rejecting the current name, asserting their right to define themselves and perhaps gaining some political or economic advantage. Gradually or perhaps quickly the mainstream opinion leaders, especially politicians, adopt the new name. The new name implies greater respect and autonomy for the group. Liberal minded folk and those feeling guilty or disturbed by the poor treatment of the marginalized group adopt the new language. Perhaps things are slowly improving but the issues remain and over time the new name acquires the same negative connotations as the old name, and the process repeats itself.
    So does this changing of names help to change attitudes or behavior? Are political and economic relationships renegotiated as a result? I think the changing language is part of a process, more a marker of change than a driver of change, but it has its role to play.

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