Choosing Our Language

Posted by Jason David on August 17, 2017

We’ve been hearing from a number of teachers that one of the key challenges in trying to facilitate conversation about the events in Charlottesville is determining what language to use, particularly in relation to groups and people.

Here are a few recommendations from our conversations:


  1. Let’s directly engage and confront the issue of white supremacy.


When we hear the term “white supremacy,” it is easy to conjure up images of the Ku Klux Klan, Neo-Nazis or other forms of blatant and overt racial hatred. Some scholars would point out that while these visible groups are “white supremacists,” “white supremacy” is broader in scope and encompasses a broader ideology which has shaped American history and institutions. Crystal Fleming, a sociology professor at Stony Brook University, stated in a Vox article that this term describes “the sociopolitical dominance of people socially defined as white.”

Robin DiAngelo, who received her PhD in Multicultural Education and is a racial and social justice trainer, makes a case for using the term “white supremacy” in a deliberate way to both describe structural racism and push the conversation past a focus on explicit hate groups. She states that:

… for sociologists, white supremacy is a highly descriptive term for the culture we live in; a culture which positions white people and all that is associated with them (whiteness) as ideal. White supremacy captures the all-encompassing centrality and assumed superiority of people defined and perceived as white, and the practices based upon that assumption. White supremacy is not simply the idea that whites are superior to people of color (although it certainly is that), but a deeper premise that supports this idea—the definition of whites as the norm or standard for human, and people of color as an inherent deviation from that norm.

As disturbing as it may be to focus on the often vitriolic hatred espoused by extremist hate groups, it may also be somewhat easier to limit the focus there. A rich conversation about hatred and prejudice can be incredibly engaging for students who want to struggle deeply with the shocking expressions of human behavior in moments like this. At the same time, linking these overt manifestations to a broader ideology of superiority/inferiority, to historical trends like segregation and lynching, and to institutional practices and inequities, while difficult, is critical to placing the events of Charlottesville in context.


  1. Don’t get stuck in the terminology.

What is the difference between white nationalists and white supremacists? What exactly is the Alt-Right? Are Neo-Nazis part of any of this aforementioned groups? Does the term white supremacy encompass something broader than overt racists?

It can be tempting to delve into the dissection and differentiation of these different groups that make up the far-right and extremist ends of race-based prejudice, but this may not be what is most important.

There are key differences to sort out that help us navigate - and respond to - the articulated goals of these various groups. University of North Carolina communication professor Michael Waltman suggests in this Mother Jones article that “white nationalist” is a propaganda tool. Waltman first saw the term “white nationalist” used by former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard Tom Metzger in 1994 and believes it was a strategic shift in language to steer away from a popular conception of a “white supremacist” as “a certain kind of uncultured bigot.”

In terms of goals, some scholars, such as Sophie Bjork-James, a postdoctoral anthropology fellow at Vanderbilt University who studies contemporary white supremacist movements, differentiates white nationalists from white supremacists this way: many white nationalists want to create an white ethno-state (reserved exclusively for white people) while white supremacists want to have power over people of color within the same state.

And yet, parsing out these differences probably isn’t as important as recognizing the similarities and common goals. As Amanda Taub explained in her New York Times article, “White supremacists and white nationalists both believe that racial discrimination should be incorporated into law and policy.” Furthermore, Jenee Desmond-Harris of Vox points out that “The nuanced difference between these groups matters to their members. To people of color who’d suffer under their agendas, not so much.”

As teachers, helping our students navigate the language is important. And our work should continue past that to thoughtfully consider and measure the impact on vulnerable communities who these groups would like to see pushed out of our national Universe of Obligation, the term sociologist Helen Fein coined to describe the circle of individuals and groups within a society “toward whom obligations are owed, to whom rules apply, and whose injuries call for amends.”

  1. Introduce language that can help anchor your students in their ethical reflection.

Our students are being bombarded with overwhelming amounts of information, images, videos, and soundbytes. What we can give them as teachers is a framework for collecting, analyzing, and assessing their observations.

How might framing questions around the issue of “belonging” help your students find their moral compass?

  • What does it mean to belong in a community or a country?
  • What makes you feel a sense of belonging?
  • Have you ever been made to feel like you don’t belong?

As part of our Facing History and Ourselves journey of learning, we think about issues of “we/they” - the tendency of individuals to make certain differences more significant than others in determining membership and belonging. This concept also relates to notions of national  and collective identity that can help people connect, but can also contribute to misunderstanding, stereotyping and conflict. Thinking about “we/they” dynamics invites us to put the events of Charlottesville in historical perspective:

  • Where did ideas about racial superiority or supremacy originate? How have they been developed over the course of United States history?
  • Which groups have been traditionally seen as “we” and which as “they” in terms of United States laws and policies?
  • Where do you see issues of “we/they” in the events in Charlottesville? Where do you see them in other current events?

Topics: current events, race

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