Earlier this summer, I was excited that 2020 would be “The Year of the Picnic.” That was until a discussion about whether or not the word picnic is racist.
The idea was surprising to many, but old news to others. “I can’t believe that white people don’t know this,” one Black colleague said.
Etymologically speaking, picnic — from the French words pique-nique — is nothing more than a potluck dinner. Yet when Southern white people made lynchings a regular occurrence at picnics, the word took on a different meaning for Black Americans.
“The word, picnic, carries with it the memory that there was a time when white folks gathered to eat outside, burning black flesh would be on the menu,” explained Treva Lindsey, an associate professor of women’s studies at Ohio State University.
And a global pandemic disproportionately killing people of color coupled with the unjust deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd have left many Americans asking: How did we get here? The answer: systemic racism. Systemic racism is made up of structures baked into our country’s institutions — like banking, education and yes, language — that devalue Black people.
In recent months, we’ve begun to exorcise culturally insensitive words and phrases from the zeitgeist. The NFL team from Washington, D.C., is now the Washington Football Team until a more equitable name can be decided upon. When writing about Black Americans, it’s now preferred to capitalize the “B” in Black. Trader Joe’s execs have rescinded their plan to remove stereotypical wording and images from its packaging of Mexican, Chinese, Middle Eastern, and other foods.
But there are many more examples with racist connotations that are more difficult to navigate. Can you take your family on a picnic and not hold hate in your heart for Black people? Did Lady Antebellum really need to change its name to Lady A if they don’t hold the same ideals as the United Daughters of the Confederacy? Can you call your room the “master bedroom” in good faith?
How do we have these necessary conversations about language without sounding like the language police?
First, we have to understand why language matters when it comes to America’s racist history, explained Molefi K. Asante, the chairman of Temple University’s African American studies department. With the genocide of native people and the enslavement of Africans, America decided it was going to be a white person’s land, Asante said, and this is embedded in the words we use. Black people were stripped of their language and “the energy around language supported whiteness and it was negative to African people: Black was evil. White was pure. Black didn’t have humanity. White had value,” Asante said. That idea is what systemic racism is built on.
Language reflects our collective identity, Asante said, and it’s troubling that there is some evidence that so many words may have come from a racist place. Peanut gallery, born in the vaudeville era, refers to the cheap seats in the theater where Black people were allowed to sit. (Remember, it was acceptable to refer to Black people as monkeys in polite company back then.) To be grandfathered in means that a person is exempt from an organization’s new rules if they are a long-standing member. But states adopted Grandfather Clauses back in the 1870s so rules designed to disenfranchise Black voters wouldn’t affect poor, illiterate white people. Tipping point — the critical juncture when change becomes unstoppable, and the title of Malcolm Gladwell’s 2000 bestseller — was popularized in the 1950s and defined the point when too many Black families moved into a neighborhood and white flight was, of course, imminent.
So if you stop using the word picnic, does that really change anything? Well yes and no, says Adriane Lentz-Smith, an associate professor of history and African American studies at Duke University. “When you are talking about systemic racism, you are dealing with a reinforced ideology that people don’t even see themselves trafficking in,” Lentz-Smith says. “The words we use feed into the structure. And people in power make life or death decisions for others based on this structure. So yes, taking a pause and being deliberate about the language we use can help create a kinder society that doesn’t traffic in anti-blackness.”
But, don’t mistake this for real structural change, Lentz-Smith says, and the obsession with wokeness is low-hanging fruit. Why? It’s easier to cancel a word than to examine and eradicate policies that support white lives and inherently make Black lives more difficult. “I imagine there are senators in Congress who would still call Black people ‘Negroes’, but if those senators are willing to reimagine prison and incarceration, or rethink crime bills, I don’t care what language they use to to talk about it or me.”
When you are dealing with terms that refer to a group of people, it’s a good idea to ask them. “The default should be whatever that person wants to be called,” said Nicole Holliday, a professor of linguistics and African American language at the University of Pennsylvania. Native American people made it crystal clear, for decades now, that the name of the Washington team was offensive to them. “In that case it’s obvious, don’t use the term,” Holliday says. The same is true for referring to Asians as Orientals, Black people as the N-word (especially if you aren’t Black), and white women as Karen.
Consider context. You can’t ignore who is talking, who is writing, and what their intent is, Holliday said. We don’t need to interrupt our grandparents every time they tell us a story if they use a word we consider to be outdated or insensitive, like “Negro” or “colored.” We can have those discussions without having to correct them every time, Holliday said. Language is shifting and it requires some patience. “We can’t punish people for not knowing the etymology of every single word in the English language.” And because language evolves, words change meaning and often disappear. “Trying to forcibly change a language doesn’t work. It’s a natural process.”
Resist the urge to dismiss their opinion or call them sensitive. Take the opportunity to listen to the person explaining their grievance, and use it to learn about the history of words like picnic, peanut gallery, or tipping point.
Also, ask yourself: Are you emotionally attached to a particular turn of phrase, or are you angry that you have been told you can’t use it? “Our connection to language tells us a lot about what we find worthy, what we value, and how we define beauty,” Lentz-Smith says. “How we use language also tells us who we have the right to debase and menace.”