Reclaiming “Political correctness”

One of the most annoyingly overused terms in modern times is without a doubt “political correctness”. The term has come to be used as a pejorative meaning speech that avoids language that might cause offense, particularly to already marginalised groups. Popular examples include changing B.C, meaning “Before Christ” to B.C.E, meaning “Before Common Era” as well as changing anything with the prefix “man” to more gender neutral terms.

There are obvious problems with this usage of “political correctness”. For starters, it ignores the very real ways that language has been used to oppress marginalised groups and seems to suggest that critiquing and altering harmful language is somehow oppressive towards the people who want to continue using said language. It also disguises existing oppressive viewpoints as “the truth” and paints those who critique them as shrill, irrational, and too easily offended. It is no surprise that those who speak out the loudest against political correctness are often the most privileged who are unaffected by certain systems of oppression and will obviously not be offended by a form of violence that has never targeted them.

What interests me the most about political correctness is the way that the term has been bastardised over the years. One of the earliest usages of the term as we know it today came from black feminist Toni Cadre in her 1970 book The Black Woman where she stated “a man cannot be politically correct and a chauvinist too”.

What did Cadre mean by this statement? From my understanding she meant that one cannot claim to be against oppressive systems and say all the correct, socially acceptable things that allude to that while simultaneously buying into and perpetrating those systems. Another interpretation of Cadre’s usage states that when she spoke of “political correctness” she was really referring to codified language that sounds socially acceptable but is really just a smoke screen for an oppressive bias. In other words, “political correctness” is when someone says “thug” when what they really mean is “n*****”.

There are a number of politically correct terms that we use in our everyday life. One of the clearest examples is “thug” which is a racially coded term almost exclusively used to describe black people whether they are protesting or getting killed by a racist vigilante while walking home after they’ve purchased an iced tea and Skittles. Another example is the use of the term “ghetto” that is almost only ever used in association with black people or black culture.

But I believe that political correctness extends beyond this. It’s not just about using words that are convenient, coded replacements for more offensive words. It’s about carefully constructing language as well as picking and choosing facts that portray an oppressive ideal in a way that will ensure the general public does not understand what’s going on but a member of the targeted group often will. It’s a newspaper knowing that they can’t call Nicki Minaj an angry black woman for speaking out against racial bias in the music industry so they opt for an unflattering picture that conveys that stereotype instead. It’s a news outlet knowing that they can’t call a rape victim an irresponsible slut who was asking for it outright so they instead opt to mention what she was wearing, how much she drank, and possibly her sexual history so that the reader draws that conclusion themselves.

This definition of political correctness is one that is far more relevant and far more harmful than the idea that it is somehow inconvenient and ridiculous to have to not to use certain language at the risk of offending someone. This definition of political correctness is one that we see in action in our media and our language everyday while the other is a silencing tactic employed by those who are too privileged to understand the nuances of oppression and how these nuances play out in our language. While both definitions see political correctness as a social concept that must be problematized, the one excuses oppressive ideas and blames marginalised people for being offended by their own oppression while the other recognises the subtle ways that the oppression of marginalised people continues to play itself out in our everyday lives. In an ironic twist, the bastardised definition of political correctness is, in and of itself, politically correct.

Therefore, the term “political correctness” is one which should be reclaimed by social justice circles as it aptly describes a particular type of microaggression that marginalised people encounter. In a world where overt bigotry, particularly in relation to race, gender, and sexuality, is often rendered unacceptable in public, political correctness ensures that marginalised people remain so in subtle, and insidious ways. Reclaiming “political correctness” for ourselves gives us both a means of identifying this type of microaggression and allows us to beat bigots at their own game. We know what they really mean when they tell us we’re being “ratchet”. And we’re not going to tolerate it anymore.



  1. Kopano Mashishi · November 2, 2015

    Fascinating. I’ve seen an emergence of the term ‘dog-whistle politics’ to describe what you’ve defined as the original meaning of the term ‘politically correct’. Basically that politicians, media outlets etc use certain words that a member of a non-oppressed group won’t immediately recognise as offensive but that a member of an oppressed group would immediately understand as such – dog whistles are set at a pitch that only dogs hear, when we hear the word bossy attached to a woman we know they implication is she’s a bitch. So the codified language you speak of (thug = n****r; sassy = angry black woman etc).

    First heard it on Scandal a few weeks ago and suddenly everyone on my Twitter feed has been using it to call out media outlets(e.g the recent Billboard tweet that was accompanied by an image that suggested 3 year old North West is destined to be sexually promiscuous, while the article it was attached was all about how she is destined to be an angry black woman ‘sassy’ ‘epic temper tantrums’ etc).

    It may be media specific; that was the context on Scandal and the context I’ve seen it used in since then. It seems to have emerged from a similar circle as ‘politically correct’ (African American womanists). So perhaps a new term in reaction to the original politically correct becoming so severely corrupted.


  2. Pingback: #ZumaMustFall: the awkward position of a problematic movement | The Plastic Black Girl

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