Commentary: Words, race and the pandemic

Commentary: Words, race and the pandemic

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Merriam-Webster, the venerable dictionary publisher, announced that it would update its definition of the word "racism," but company officials hastened to say that they would do so in line with their long-standing commitment to political neutrality.

Merriam-Webster, the venerable dictionary publisher, announced that it would update its definition of the word "racism," but company officials hastened to say that they would do so in line with their long-standing commitment to political neutrality. (Dreamstime/TNS)

As an English professor, I write and teach about words for a living. But you don't need a Ph.D. to realize some of the language we use to talk about the COVID-19 pandemic invokes racism - and sometimes subtly promotes violence.

President Donald Trump has often called the coronavirus "the Chinese virus," referring to it as the "kung flu" at his campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Most people recognize this language as racist, even if they don't know about the harm it's doing.

Between mid-March and mid-April of this year, the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council recorded significant increases in attacks against Asian Americans and Asians. The group tracked more than 1,500 such incidents, from name-calling to physical assault, in that one-month time frame alone.

Trump has implied that Asians and Asian Americans are not only responsible for spreading the virus, but may have created it, too, an assertion for which there is no evidence. His allegations are in keeping with hundreds of years of racist blaming immigrants, nonwhites and non-English speakers for carrying diseases - from the plague to HIV and now the new coronavirus.

The president's use of the term "Chinese virus," like his referring to antiracist protestors as "thugs" and "lowlifes," is part of his pattern of promoting racism and white supremacy. But his refusal to use accurate language to describe the virus is also bad public policy. Paying attention to facts and to science can save lives.

Consider the use of the term "lockdown" to describe stay-home policies. Ellen DeGeneres recently drew justified criticism for likening being isolated in her multimillion-dollar mansion to "being in jail."

Before COVID-19, "lockdown" was mostly used to refer to locking prison inmates in their cells for extended periods - sometimes days on end - because of a real or perceived security threat, or as collective punishment.

The system of mass incarceration, as many journalists, scholars and activists have explained, is the largest organized, for-profit form of injustice in this country since slavery, It affects millions of Black and Latinx people and our families in numbers that far exceed our representation in the population.

So yes, using "lockdown" to refer to civilians voluntarily staying at home is both inaccurate and problematic.

Instead, try "home isolation," "self-isolation" or just "staying at home."

But please don't use "shelter in place." The term originally referred to the imminent threat of a natural disaster, nuclear war or chemical spill; before the pandemic, it was mostly used to describe hiding from an "active shooter." The use of this phrase suggests that people should be fighting the coronavirus threat not with masks, physical distancing and handwashing, but with guns.

Even though the majority of mass shooters in the United States have been white men, the rhetoric of white supremacists and militias is one of protecting white America from Muslims, Blacks, Latinx immigrants, and Jews. The armed agitators in the Michigan state capitol brandished their guns because, in their words, they wanted their "freedom" from "lockdowns" and other perceived attacks on their liberty.

Thinking about the language we use when we talk about the coronavirus and the pandemic is not about "political correctness." It's about accuracy: COVID-19 is not the fault of any ethnic group. And there is no lock or force involved in the stay-at-home restrictions implemented by state and local governments.

Along with physical distancing, hand-washing and masks, the words you choose can remind others - and ourselves - that we're fighting a virus, not other people.



Rosamond S. King is a writer and associate professor of English at Brooklyn College, part of the City University of New York. This column was produced for the Progressive Media Project, which is run by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.

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