My Experience with Coded Language
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Politics and Activism

My Experience with Coded Language

"That's so cute."

My Experience with Coded Language

Ian Haney López, author of Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class, says that dog-whistle politics is the manipulation of racism in service of very specific goals. López’s book focuses on elected officials’ ability to tap into bias without being explicit about it, all to gain support for what he calls “regressive policies." Not surprisingly, we can see dog whistle politics in everyday life as coded language.

Coded language and dog whistle politics are often considered synonymous with one-another. While I have never experienced racism as a white person, I recognize the coded language minorities suffer from daily. And, as a woman, I have still experienced coded language against me.

The thing about coded language is that you may not recognize it as coded language from the outside or without working to understand others' experiences, so when I tell people that the word 'cute' can be coded language, I often get strange looks. The word 'cute' is not always coded language but it can be. 'Cute' can be innocently used to describe a litter of puppies or a new pair of shoes, but it can be more than that. I find myself often being described as 'cute,' and not in an endearing way.

"Oh, she's hanging out with the guys. That's cute."

"Oh, you want to do all of that and be successful? That's cute."

"You're so cute when you're angry."

"It's cute when you get upset."

This is coded language, my friends. In each of these cases, the word 'cute' is used to undermine my actions, my goals, and my feelings - which are actually all legitimate. The word cute is used to push me back to the norms I should be fitting because 'cute' women don't hang out with the guys, have serious goals and aspirations, nor are they allowed to be emotional without repercussions. By calling me 'cute' in this context, you're actually saying something much more malicious whether or not you intend to.

Aside from my own experiences, I have heard of friends who are of minority backgrounds who struggle with words like 'ratchet' or 'alien' or 'ghetto.' These can also be coded words.

While it would be nice for the world to change and for everyone to be aware of coded language, let's not be unrealistic. Instead, we can reclaim the words used against us, whatever they may be. Now, I sure as hell make sure people think it's cute when I get that promotion or recognition over them. I've made cute a part of my identity because by taking the word back, it cannot be used against me in the same way.

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