More Than Mere Words: A Look at Appropriated Linguistic Harassment

Last month, during the State of the Union address, a Georgia representative wore a shirt with the phrase “say her name” to illustrate her support of stronger border security, laws against undocumented immigrants in the US, and to push the false narrative that undocumented people are more of a threat than US citizens. However, we need to take a moment to call her actions out as what they are: appropriated linguistic harassment.

A New Definition

If you are saying to yourself, “I’ve never heard of that,” it’s because I made it up. It is the combination of “linguistic harassment” (the use of linguistic techniques to harass) and “linguistic appropriation” (the appropriation of language, especially from AAVE and Queer vocabularies).

Appropriated linguistic harassment is the use of vocabulary or phrases from another vernacular to incite harassment or discrimination against the original group, or other marginalized group, in which it originated. Simply put, it is using someone else’s words against them. This is most often seen in the way that white people will use the word “woke” as a pejorative against people seeking equality, liberation, and escape from harmful systems.

“Woke” has become a rallying cry for many influential conservatives (and “moderate liberals”) who believe that there are people in the US becoming too “radically progressive.” It is an intentional use of an appropriated word to target others (i.e. harassment). (For more info, I recommend reading this article.)


When it comes to the Georgia representative using the phrase “say her name” in reference to the death of Laken Riley, we need to address the underlying message that the representative was trying to convey.

#SayHerName was created by the African American Policy Forum and Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies to bring awareness of the Black women and girls who have been the victims of racist police violence. The phrase became even more popular after police killed Breonna Taylor in her sleep.

The use of this phrase is meant to specifically address racial inequality in our justice system, especially by police. However, the phrase is being co-opted by people who want to use the death of white woman to advocate for a white “racial justice.”

What is the Real Issue?

The death of Laken Riley is something that should never have happened and should highlight the fact that there is a plethora of issues our culture refuses to address that leads to women being unsafe in the US. However, her death was not caused by systemic injustice within the US. (Also, the tokenization of her death by politicians to push fear is reprehensible.)

#SayHerName was specifically used to highlight systemic issues that have led to the elevated risk BIPOC feminine people face at the hands of our police force. The Georgia representative, knowing this, used the phrase to promote the idea that white people are in danger through systemic issues.

In essence, the representative was saying the president needed to address the racial injustice that white women face, which is something that does not exist.

The actions of the representative reflect a tactic popular during the antebellum and Jim Crow periods (and still today) that uses inaccurate, violent stereotypes to advocate for the safety of white women from Black people and people of color (Kelly Brown Douglas, Sexuality and the Black Church, ch. 3). Simply put, white Americans have a long history of advocating false narratives against marginalized communities to justify the continuation of white supremacy in the name of “protection.” It is a racially driven narrative that pushes racist ideologies, which has led to everything from defunding of welfare systems to lynchings.

What’s the Real Message?

Unfortunately, the tactic of co-opting language does not simply end at pushing ideologies. Appropriated linguistic harassment is a form of microaggressions (or even an overt aggression) that convey a message of unacceptance by those doing the co-opting.

By using co-opted language, the representative signaled the dismissal of the real racial disparities in our justice system, the invalidation of those who face real oppression, and the dog whistle that white people need to be protected from anyone not white. This complete rejection of the reality that many face in our culture today is an intentional act of racism and violence to those harmed by the system she upholds.

This was an intentionally racist act to incite harm.

Simple Things We Can Do

Resistance to the power structures that create harm in our world often comes with knowing how to speak. When someone is co-opting language to push racist ideologies, call it out. Dog whistles that go unchallenged often get accepted as truth.

As people seeking to see real justice, we have to call out leaders and influences who utilize language appropriation even if the usage is not intended to be harmful. An example is when people started to say “rest in power” in reference to Aaron Bushnell. “Rest in Power” is specifically a phrase used for those who have died in their struggle against social injustice themselves, especially BIPOC and sometimes LGBTQ2IA+ people.

Our words and the words of our leaders matter. They have context and subtext that go deeper than the mere words that are used. Part of being subversive in our unjust world is knowing the words people use and what they are communicating beyond those words. Being anti-racist, anti-queerphobia, and anti-marginalization means ending the co-opting of language that leads to harm.

Kalie May Hargrove