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The Limits of Language: A Roundtable on the Changing Vocabulary Around the Struggle for Racial Justice

It matters how we frame our conversations about racism, but only so much.

Recents years have seen a dramatic shift in the lexicon of how Americans talk about race and racism. Concepts like "systemic racism" and "white privilege", once limited to academic and activist circles, have entered the mainstream conversation. But this shift has opened up new debates. High among them is the question of whether changing the way we talk about race actually leads to racial progress and justice. A panel of journalists sat down with Roundtable's Rob Nelson to discuss how our terminology does and does not advance the ongoing struggle for racial equality.

Teodrose Fikremariam argued that doing away with racism will ultimately require doing away with racial labels altogether. “The root of 'black' is pejorative,” he said. “They gave us that word for a reason. And it actually even goes back to Biblical times where, you know, black is the absence of light, which is the absence of God.” To the Ethiopian-born activist and writer, to accept even the label “black” is to affirm a hierarchy based on skin color. He notes that the very concept of race was invented by colonists and slave traders. Race itself, Fikremariam insists, exists only to divide and oppressr.

Sharon Kyle, journalist and co-founder of the Hollywood Progressive, noted that even as our language has changed over the years, racist systems and structures have endured. “Public schools are as segregated today as they were back in 1954, when Brown v. Board of Education was decided,” she said. "Call it what you will, black Americans, as a whole, [still have] fewer opportunities than their white counterparts."

Watch the full discussion:

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