F-words: Language, power, and Blackness

In this first blog in our 'F-words' series, Claire L. Heuchan writes about how the capital 'B' in Black illustrates the link between words and anti-oppression. Claire tweets as SisterOutrider and blogs here.

Since taking my own place in the feminist movement, I’ve given a lot of thought to the relationship between language and power. Words are the markers we use to make sense of the world around us and where we fit in it. The language we choose can uphold social inequalities. Or it can challenge them. There is a connection between words and power, a bond that thrums with potential. Everyday words and phrases can be turned on their head, their meaning subverted.

The earliest example I can remember hearing comes from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. The Banks family had gathered round the dinner table for their evening meal. A Christian family, they kicked off dinner by saying grace. And Ashley Banks – Will’s cousin, who brought a much-needed feminist perspective to the series – finished her prayer with ‘a-women’.

The Fresh Prince was a sitcom. Ashley’s ‘a-women’ was intended as a funny joke, not a feminist awakening. But as a little Black girl watching this scene in the ‘90s, it blew my mind. I began to question why, having been raised in the Catholic church, we assumed the masculinity of the God we prayed to. Why ‘God the Father’, not ‘God the Mother’?

And later I wondered why the word ‘actor’ was seen as a neutral way to describe any member of the Fresh Prince cast, but ‘actress’ was only appropriate for the women and girls. Using ‘actor’ to describe a female performer could be a way of signalling that you take her craft seriously. But the reverse does not hold true. Calling a man an actress is at best understood as bizarre, at worst demeaning.

Words can be bricks in the wall of patriarchy’s fortress. Or they can be projectiles used to knock it down. The same goes for white supremacy. So, whenever I write the word Black – describing people of African descent – I make the ‘B’ upper-case. This is intentional. I do it to affirm the dignity and worth of Black identity – which are often denied, and with fatal consequences. The rallying cry of Black Lives Matter inspired an international movement because, across continents, Black life is treated as disposable.

Whether it’s the racism that means police are three times as likely to stop and search a Black person than white, or the medical racism that leads to Black women in the UK being five times more likely to die of complications in pregnancy and childbirth than white women, anti-Blackness has devastating outcomes.

Capitalising the ‘B’ in Black is something that I learned to do as an adult. During childhood, on those rare occasions when Black people were mentioned in the classroom, I was taught to write ‘black’ – the people indistinguishable from the colour. Black Scottish history and culture were largely erased by the curriculum. Even Scotland’s colonial past and role in the transatlantic slave trade – which generated the wealth that built Glasgow city centre – was wallpapered over. We were assigned no books by Black writers. Certain teachers presented racist stereotyping as scientific fact. One teacher – a white woman – even used the word n****r in her classroom for dramatic effect.

Every teacher was white. And there wasn’t a single one who challenged the racism I experienced as one in a handful of Black children. Few even acknowledged that racism was a factor in how I was treated by my peers, never mind their own colleagues. So – needless to say – I didn’t learn anything positive about being Black in primary or secondary school. Quite the opposite. When so many of the people responsible for my education were looking at the world through racism’s lens, how could it be otherwise?

But I believe in lifelong learning. We can each follow our own decolonised curriculum. Reading bell hooks for the first time, I went from a feminist who happened to be Black to a Black feminist. And – after immersing myself in Black feminist texts, novels, and poetry – I began to let go of the anti-Blackness I’d internalised through formal education. Part of that process was learning to capitalise the ‘B’ in ‘Black.’

There are people – mainly white – who object to this practice. White men in particular police the way I write Black. As Patricia Hill Collins once wrote:

"Oppressed groups are frequently placed in the situation of being listened to only if we frame our ideas in the language that is familiar to and comfortable for a dominant group. This requirement often changes the meaning of our ideas and works to elevate the ideas of dominant groups."

Resistance to the upper-case ‘B’ often comes from a place of anti-Blackness. After all, when we’re writing about an ethnic or cultural group, the standard practice is to use a capital letter. We do it for the words ‘Asian’, ‘First Nations’, ‘Arab’, and ‘Indigenous’. Blackness is both an ethnic and a cultural identity. We do Black identity a disservice by failing to acknowledge that reality.

F-words is a blog series exploring feminist language, from specific terminology to general reflections. Read all of the entries here.


Guest posts do not necessarily reflect the views of Engender, and all language used is the author's own. Bloggers have received some editorial support from Engender, and may have received a fee from our commissioning pot. We aim for our blog to reflect a range of feminist viewpoints, and offer a commissioning pot to ensure that women do not have to offer their time or words for free.

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