Linguists should stop saying linguistic discrimination is the last acceptable prejudice

This is the last acceptable public prejudice: bad jokes and silly stereotypes about people who speak differently. (from The Economist)

“The site offers information, resources, and current research on topics around the issue of accentism in an attempt to raise awareness of what is, in some ways, the last socially acceptable form of prejudice.” (from Accentism,org)

“Language discrimination, the last acceptable prejudice in Europe?” (from @EUROLANG)

I recently discussed with a colleague how common this framing of linguistic discrimination is. Then I started seeing it everywhere I looked on Twitter. After some brief exchanges there, I wanted to discuss the problems I see in a longer form.

My argument is simple: We shouldn’t say that linguistic discrimination is the last acceptable prejudice because there are plenty of other prejudices that people find “acceptable.” I consider what’s enshrined into law, policy, and common media portrayals to be a reflection of what’s “accepted” in a given society. With those arenas in mind, I agree with Marina Hyde, who wrote in an essay about the phrase, “I don’t feel there’s been a great whittling down, a great streamlining, a great sloughing-off of prejudices.”

The last acceptable prejudice trope is widespread in linguistics partly because it’s widespread outside the field. Hyde’s essay was about overuse of the phrase generally. Language Log discusses “the last acceptable form of <SomeImmoralAttitude>” as a recurring phrase with numerous examples. The writer Your Fat Friend, whose work discusses body positivity politics and life as a fat person, implored fellow activists to stop calling fat hate “the last acceptable discrimination.”

I know that in the past I’ve used the phrase in reference to linguistic discrimination. Unfortunately, I couldn’t track down the exact old course paper where I did so–I’d wanted to look back on it for this post. I see the problem with the phrase affecting linguistics broadly, part of a trend of separating language from other issues. It’s certainly not only found among a handful of writings that currently rank highly in Google or Twitter search results.

My sense is that some linguists who use the ‘last acceptable prejudice’ line are thinking about people who decry other forms of discrimination but still approve of linguistic discrimination (or engage in it themselves). Occasionally these people are referred to as “polite society.” But do those people really deserve any credit for their stated opposition to prejudices other than language?

Imagine a White supervisor who says to their Black employee, “I don’t have a problem with you being Black, and I support our racial nondiscrimination policy, but the way you talk isn’t professional or grammatically correct.” Is this someone who decries racism but engages in linguicism or accentism? Of course not! It’s a racist comment, plain and simple. This supervisor would be continuing a tradition of stigmatizing language associated with Blackness.

It is certainly notable that “I’m not a racist, but…” is such a common preamble to something racist, but that no equivalent for language discrimination exists. At least, I’ve never heard someone say “I don’t discriminate against people’s language, but the way people from XYZ talk is just wrong.” But this doesn’t mean that racism isn’t “acceptable” to many people and that language discrimination is. It means that racism has lots of defense mechanisms geared to obfuscation, including recasting some racism as supposedly objective assessments of some ways of using language. Calling language discrimination “the last acceptable prejudice” will never capture the complex relationship between language, social categories like race, and issues of power and exclusion.

A recent article in Slate by Katie Martin uses the film Sorry to Bother You (go see it!), the trailer for which shows a Black telemarketer using a “white voice,” as a stepping stone to review classic findings about language discrimination and its relationship to race. Martin closes the piece with a statement that at first appears to be a recycling of the last acceptable prejudice story. But interestingly, the statement comes with so much clarifying material that it ends up being a good illustration of why last acceptable prejudice is such a bad explanation by itself:

“Linguistic prejudice is one of the last widely socially acceptable ways to discriminate against certain racial or socio-economic groups, by using criticism of nonstandard dialects as a proxy for criticism of their speakers”

In Martin’s telling, linguistic prejudice isn’t the one final surviving type of prejudice, as if other forms of discrimination had faded into obscurity. It is in fact part of those other forms of discrimination. Her explanation also highlights how language is used as a proxy for groups (e.g., calling someone’s pronunciation lazy is a way of calling them, and people like them, lazy too). This is definitely an improvement on the standard ‘last acceptable’ formula, although I still question the idea that linguistic justifications for discrimination are particularly intense or more widespread than other proxies like the criminal justice system, respectability politics, or civility.

Many linguists agree that we must talk about the connections between language, discrimination, and power. That’s a strength of the field, and it’s one of the things that brought me to researching language. But we should talk about those connections without downplaying the many ways that discrimination and power are justified without reference to language.

Update: On 7/25/2018, The Accentism Project, which was quoted at the top of the post, has updated the text of their homepage in response to this post.

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