Sweat pooling on my brow, I frantically typed 200 words per second as a barrage of adverbs, adjectives and nouns I’d never heard before were thrown at me. I was sitting in a lecture through the Yale Center for the Study of Race, Indigeneity, and Transnational Migration by associate professor of English and Africana Studies at Marquette University Jodi Melamed titled, “Operationalizing Racial Capitalism: Administrative Power and Ordinary Violence.” Melamed was talking about the “dealmaking nature” of the Trump administration. At one point she quoted Yale professor Lisa Lowe on the definition of neo-liberal capitalism, “a theory and practice of colonial management that works by constituting and sorting a legitimacy and illegitimacy to groups of human beings who are differently situated in hegemonic state capital relations.” My mind does a double take, and I think to myself, “Wait, what?”
We all know literature of the Western canon is difficult to comprehend, at least during a first reading. I spent a full summer with Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason” and a dictionary, underlining every third word, rereading every sentence not twice but thrice — and yet I still cannot claim to know the first thing about Kantian theory. Such literature was written deliberately, however, for a limited audience. Hume wrote “Of National Characters” for a strictly white reading base; for how could the “inferior non-white races” be expected to comprehend the language that inhabited the pages of his book?
Moreover, I don’t understand why even literature written to promote marginalized groups in society uses language that the very groups it claims to represent cannot comprehend. For example, British historian Eric Hobsbawm in his introduction to “The Communist Manifesto” rightly notes that the manifesto’s readership, comprised mainly of theorists, did not represent the working class Marx intended to target.
Today, many departments at Yale, including Ethnicity, Race and Migration, use hard-to-decipher language that reflects this same irony. Why make your ideas so inaccessible when that very linguistic tool has been used throughout the centuries to exclude marginalized groups from sharing in discourse? I am not surprised when Political Science and History professors use language that is by its nature exclusive, but when ER&M does so too, it leaves me utterly confused.
Roderick Ferguson, a women’s, gender and sexuality and American studies professor, credits feminists who are women of color in his essay titled “The Relational Revolutions of Antiracist Formations” with “cultivat[ing] the mind’s principles of and capacities for association as a direct alternative to those proposed by theorists such as Hume.” Even if such language finds an audience in academic circles, it falls on deaf ears in the real world where less than 25 percent of women of color in the U.S. receive a college education.
When Rosa Parks was leading the Montgomery bus boycott in the 1950s, the pamphlets circulated did not read “the exigency of the entrenched white-racist bussing system places upon us the need to congregate before it forsakes our closest familial relations.” Instead of employing my dreadful attempt at making a simple point, the pamphlets said “[Black people] have rights, too… If we do not do something to stop these arrests, they will continue. The next time it may be you, or your daughter, or mother.” This was because Rosa Parks realized she was representing the voices of women who needed real-world change, not academic jargon.
Even within academic circles, such writing caters to only a select few. There were two types of people who attended Melamed’s lecture: professors and graduate students who proceeded to vigorously head-nod when she called America “a racial, settler-capitalist anti-state state,” and students like me who frantically tried to write down what she said while simultaneously attempting to make sense of her words.
The use of such complex academic language automatically excludes students from low-income backgrounds, an economic class that is disproportionately comprised of people of color, and international students, most of whom learned English as a second language. We cannot engage head on with such texts without losing ourselves in the trenches of merriam-webster.com.
ER&M claims to be retelling history, bringing back erased voices of victims of colonial and racial violence. The language that it uses to retell this history, however, mirrors that of the Western canon. At one point, Melamed said to understand administrative power, “we must break with the fetish today of the … right-wing, white discourse.” According to her we cannot use the discourse on the right to critique the right’s drawbacks. Exactly. Why use language created by the dominant powers that instituted racism and colonialism to voice the concerns, actions and achievements of the victims of said racism and colonialism?
In order to bring about change, people need to step up and speak plainly. Not in language that is simpler or “lower-level,” but rather in language that people can actually understand and that will thus make a difference. Use one adjective, instead of 10, unless need be. Where a point can be made clearly, do it. This is how we can in fact elevate discourse: to include more people in the conversation. In 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. mobilized thousands with the simple words, “I have a dream.” If he could gather the masses at one call, we can surely write in our classrooms in ways that reach a wider audience. Say it like you mean it.
IMAN IFTIKHAR is a first year in Morse College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .