CODE WORDS

By Zoe Jeka

I am writing a follow-up to my June blog post, “Bringing Race, Racism, and Critical Compassion into Focus at Food Justice Events”, with more concrete steps individuals can take to disrupt and resist the systemic racism perpetuated at these kinds of events. For anyone who doesn’t know where to start (or feels stuck) in thinking or talking about race and racism at events like Food for Thought at the Schuylkill Center, I’ve made a list of some “code words” to watch out for. To me, these words are used as replacements for more obviously raced words (i.e. when people say “minorities” instead of “people of Color”) when people are uncomfortable or don’t know how to talk about race. When these words come up, a simple question like, “what do you mean by “[insert code word]”? can help reveal that the conversation does involve race, even if it wasn’t explicitly mentioned, and encourage folks to continue thinking after the conversation is over.

  • “Wild” → Usually conjures images of forests, mountains, etc. Connotes innocence and emptiness, as if nothing was there before it. This is an ahistorical and violent erasing of indigenous peoples that lived in the US before being forcibly removed and brutally murdered by White europeans. Also, indigenous peoples still exist and the narrative of emptiness continues to erase and disappear their existence. The entire US is occupied/stolen land. Nowhere is innocent or “wild”.
  • “Greening/beautify” → Code word for gentrification (when used by White folks). White people/corporations put money into a marginalized neighborhood (usually a poor community, a community of Color, or both) → it becomes more valuable (in the eyes of White people) → real estate prices go up → people originally in neighborhood can’t afford real estate anymore and are forced to move out → White people move in. “Greening” = forced displacement = gentrification.
  • “High-crime area” → A code description for communities of Color. This one is particularly confusing/enraging to me for two reasons:

1) when people use this descriptor, do they actually know the “crime” rates for that neighborhood? I think not. Let’s stop making racist assumptions.

2) Let’s move back for a second and talk about who is doing the crime. Poor communities and Communities of Color are systematically stolen from every day in the form of lack of resources from the government and society at large. Poor people and People of Color’s respect, worth, and lives are stolen away by systemic racism, classism, and other systems of power every day. Beyond the drawn-out, intentional killing of People of Color over time by lack of resources (i.e., health care, healthy food, peace of mind, education, etc), police brutality steals the lives of PoC daily. So let’s be clear about who is doing “crime”.

  • “Urban/Inner-city” → Often used instead of “low-income community of Color” - a way to avoid bringing race into the conversation, and perpetuates narratives of low-income communities of Color as dangerous/criminal (see next word).
  • “Good/nice vs. bad/dangerous/shady/sketchy neighborhood” → What people really mean by this distinction is: White neighborhood vs. community of Color. Except this is a racist and violent distinction that valorizes White people and criminalizes People of Color. Which justifies the continual flow of resources away from communities of Color and toward rich, White communities. Which is the systemic problem food “justice” is trying to resist, right?

Zoe Jeka, Marqui Taylor, Nyami Royster & Atiba Ellerby at the Vacant Land Community Train the Trainers workshop.

The knowledge I am sharing here is not new or original. This may or may not be the first time you are hearing about these code words. I acquired this knowledge from journalists/writers of color and other alternative news sources, mentors, teachers, activists, and friends who have taken time and energy to put their knowledge into the world. I would like to acknowledge and appreciate those who came before me.

Lastly, I want to talk about what it means to change our language. Although this is necessary in moving toward a deeper understanding of systemic power and violence, it is just one aspect of the work. I want to suggest a few resources that have been useful to me in resisting structural and personal racism more broadly. Of course, I write this as a White person, so some of my suggestions will be specific to doing racial justice work as a White person.

First, for me, was and is self-education. I signed up for classes that deepened my understanding of systems of power such as structural racism. I started reading alternative media sources, such as Colorlines, Colours of Resistance, Black Girl Dangerous, and Everyday Feminism. I began reading books and books and books, by writers of Color (and especially womyn of Color), such as Gloria Anzaldua, Cherrie Moraga, Audre Lorde, Mitsuye Yamada, Assata Shakur, Elaine Brown, Erika Lee, and more (a good way to find out who to read is to read a book by one of the aforementioned womyn and find out who they have read, who their friends are, and then go read their works). Learning to listen to people of Color, who understand racism more deeply than I ever will. Learning to pay attention to people and voices I have been conditioned to ignore.

After some time, I realized that I must do more than read and listen (although this will always be a crucial aspect of my work). I became more involved in racial justice organizing. In Philadelphia, I started going to the Philly Coalition for REAL Justice meetings and actions. There, I met some White folks involved with SURJ (Showing Up For Racial Justice), a national organization that organizes White people to take action for racial justice. You can find a local chapter (or how to start one) on their website.

These are just a few jumping off points. Please contact me if you are a White person looking for ways to begin or continue racial justice work, or if you have suggestions for me to expand the work I’ve mentioned here (I will always be learning, too)!