Now acronyms are racist

February 3, 2021 • 11:15 am

Well, for a couple of days we’ll be tackling views that certain organizations or behaviors are racist. There’s not much stuff to write about at present besides the “racialization of America”—a tricky topic at best.

Some accusations are more important than others, and this is surely one of the less important ones. I don’t think that getting rid of acronyms is going to eliminate bigotry from society (indeed, I don’t know, given the reasons why acronyms are seen to be racist, what one could replace them with). It’s just a sign of how race-conscious and touchy certain segments of America have become. And, tracking down the source of this mishigass, I came upon an interesting paper.

First, the article from SFGate about the racism of acronyms (click on screenshot):

After going through the decision of the San Francisco Unified School District’s (SFUSD, note that it’s an ACRONYM!) to rename 44 public schools, the article gets down to business:

The district’s arts department has decided to change its name, “VAPA” (visual and performing arts) to “SFUSD Arts Department” because they say “acronyms are a symptom of white supremacy culture,” reports ABC7

“The use of so many acronyms within the educational field often tends to alienate those who may not speak English to understand the acronym,” Sam Bass, Director of the SFUSD Arts Department, explained in a letter to the station.

According to ABC7, that theory may come from a paper written in 1999 by author Tema Okun titled “White Supremacy Culture.” It posits that culture perpetuates racism when things continue to be written down in a certain way.

It’s unclear if any of the hundreds of acronyms used in the district’s work, on their website and in their own name will also be changed. The school district said there is no official district-wide policy yet.

But why is “VAPA” alienating to those who have more trouble with the phrase “Visual and Performing Arts”? Why is it racist?

Oh, and ABC7 inquired of the mayor:

When we asked Mayor London Breed for her opinion, she was confused and thought we were asking her about the issue of renaming schools.

“We definitely need to have a robust conversation about what we need to do but not a rushed conversation,” said Mayor Breed.

Well, goodbye NAACP, NASA, SUFD, and, for that matter, USA. But for the life of me, I can’t see a scintilla of racism in using acronyms.  After all, NAACP is an African-American organization! And the rights of blacks have long been defended by the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union), which doesn’t seem to have grasped its own racism.

To further investigate the issue, I looked up Tema Okun’s 8-page paper, originally taken from Dismantling Racism: A Workbook for Social Change Groups, by Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun.

Click on the screenshot to learn the characteristics of “white supremacy culture”:

Here are the characteristics of “white supremacy culture” as outlined by Okun. Many of these seem to have influenced the Smithsonian Institution’s now-removed exhibit poster on White Culture:

  • perfectionism
  • sense of urgency
  • defensiveness
  • quantity over quality
  • worship of the written word
  • only one right way [to do things]
  • paternalism
  • either/or thinking
  • power hoarding
  • fear of open conflict
  • individualism
  • i’m the only one [connected to individualism, little delegation of work to others]
  • progress is bigger, more
  • objectivity
  • right to comfort

The lack of capitals comes from the original paper. Now I’m not sure how Okun discerned that these are characteristics of white supremacy culture versus white culture versus any other culture, but the salient point is that there’s nothing in here about acronyms. The only relevant bit is “worship of the written word,” and here’s what it says:

This doesn’t say anything about things “being written down in a certain way”; it criticizes having to write down all things as a characteristic of “white supremacist culture”.

The mystery of the Racist Acronyms remains unsolved. No big deal, but I really do object to cultures characterizing each other in these ways. We talked about this when we dealt with the Smithsonian’s ill-fated effort to characterize “White Culture,” and it’s simply racist and divisive to do this.  The fact is that many of these are aspects of American business culture (and probably business culture worldwide), and while that was largely white for many decades, many of these are pragmatic rules adopted to make organizations more efficient. To see them as “white or black” avoids the necessity of seeing which of these are actually inimical to success or efficiency, regardless of what race you are.

105 thoughts on “Now acronyms are racist

  1. I always remember the Bay Area Rapid Transit being named BART, Fresno decided against an acronym, but I don’t think it was because of privilege.

      1. At the time (back in the 70’s I think, it is a bit too long ago for me to remember) they were Rapid Transit, now they have gone for a short form FAX for Fresno Area eXpress, so still not an acronym, probably because they didn’t want to be FOEs! Edit: oops, I didn’t get that one at all correct. Oh well, the sentirment was there and I can only apologise.

    1. The very scenic Centovalli line in northern Italy/southern Switzerland is operated by the Ticino Regional Bus and Rail Company. That is, Ferrovie Autolinee Regionali Ticinesi , and their trains proudly display their initials in big shiny chrome letters.
      http://cr01.info/misc/Centovalli.jpg
      This is obviously an extremely racist insult directed squarely at English-speaking visitors and I would strongly encourage any tourist offended by this to take it up with the first Italian person of authority that they encounter.

      1. “Somebody tell BLM they have to change their name.”

        Ah ah ah – racists must have applied the acronym obvs… theg enacronymmed the slogan…

  2. Heavy acronym or jargon use can be used by organizations to distinguish “insiders” from “outsiders” and learning a field or organization’s lingo is indeed a way to signal you’re part of the club. But I’m not sure what this necessarily has to do with race or being white. It seems to me it crops up in groups all across the political and cultural spectrum. The use of specialized acronyms and lingo occurs in groups as varied as the military and ’60s postmodernists, and everything in between.

    1. Yes, there is a degree to which institutional nomenclature is off-putting, but I don’t think that the issue is limited to non-whites.

      1. Right.
        One of my issues with wokeism – and earlier postmodernism which it seems to resemble – is that it detracts from actual, useful research getting done. We could be having a useful conversation about the tradeoff values of acronyms and specialized lingo to speed up and clarify communication within a field, vs. alienating and making it more difficult for outsiders to understand and follow. What’s the right balance? What are the factors that make acronyms more useful, and when can we recognize when ‘insiders’ are using them more to prevent criticism or understanding vs. speak accurately? What sort of experiments or sociological observations could we do to understand this issue? But no, we’re not having that discussion. And no, liberal academia will now not bother with the experiments. Because instead, the thesis ‘all acronyms are racist’ will now suck the air out of the sociological room.

  3. Technically, these aren’t acronyms as they aren’t pronounced as words. RADAR is an acronym, but SFUSD is an initialism or, more generally, an abbreviation. Of course, English is a dynamic language. I imagine the definition of “acronym” will be changed to fit usage sometime in the near future. Just saying. 😉

    1. Sorry, but if you look up “acronyms” in the Oxford English Dictionary you find both uses, with the “nonword” definition first. The OED is my standard source for usage, so all the acronyms in my post are acronyms according to it.

      Originally U.S.

      1. A group of initial letters used as an abbreviation for a name or expression, each letter or part being pronounced separately; an initialism (such as ATM, TLS).
      In the O.E.D. the term initialism is used for this phenomenon. (See sense 2 for O.E.D. use of the word.)

      1940 W. Muir & E. Muir tr. L. Feuchtwanger Paris Gaz. iii. xlvii. 518 Pee-gee-enn. It’s an acronym [Ger. Akronym], that’s what it is. That’s what they call words made up of initials.
      1947 T. M. Pearce in Word Study May 8/2 The acronym DDT..trips pleasantly on the tongue and is already a household byword.
      1959 Rotarian May 43/1 DDD, an acronym that sounds more like a cattle brand.
      1975 Jet 24 July 9/1 The puns on the acronym, ‘CIA’, were spawned by recent disclosures about the intelligence agency.
      1985 C. Jencks Mod. Movements in Archit. (ed. 2) i. 75 Called by the acronym SCSD (Schools Construction System Development).
      2008 Atlantic Monthly June 104/2 The acronym TSS—Tout Sauf Sarkozy (‘Anything But Sarkozy’).
      (Hide quotations)

      2. A word formed from the initial letters of other words or (occasionally) from the initial parts of syllables taken from other words, the whole being pronounced as a single word (such as NATO, RADA).

      1. I think Paul Topping is a computer geek, who – rightly – scrutinize the orders of ASCII characters – so I’ll cut him some some ….

        SLACK

        [ YEAHHHHHH!!!!!!! ]

        …. except that’s a backronym. and an old meme.

        [ technical note : apologies if a reply I tried to delete showed up as well – I deleted it, and started this one. thank you.]

        1. Yes, I’m a computer geek but so much more! 😉 I was actually throwing out my comment about acronym vs initialism more in the line of language terrorist, though of the non-violent variety.

  4. Also, no-one “understands” acronyms at first glance. Even a native English speaker needs to find out what VAPA means in that context.

  5. Wait. How can “quantity over quality” and meritocracy both be racist? These people are just creating an Ancien Régime, and defining it, and anything that comes from it, as racist. Get ready for Year 1.

  6. Are they implying that non-white people have inherently poorer reading comprehension skills … ?

    Non-English speakers have no trouble recognising what “CERN” refers to, even if very few would be able to expand it correctly (I worked in the field, and I’d want to double check).

    🐜

    1. A lot of these complaints about aspects of white supremacy culture are tacitly racist, in that the assume that they are unfair to non-Europeans who can’t adapt to them, which is, of course, untrue.

      1. i suspect the people making these assumptions about the low potential of minorities are either White folks who actually hold fairly racist beliefs, or minorities who have not made the effort to succeed in engineering or whatever, and choose to blame their own failure some aspect or other of racism.
        The people I have noticed who most strongly oppose the idea of such low expectations are members of minority groups who have done the work and thrived in supposedly White environments. Just as people generally who have escaped poverty or other adversity through hard work have little patience with those who claim that such success is unlikely or impossible.

  7. From the quote from the Okun paper:

    “the belief there is one right way to do things and once people are introduced to the right way, they will see the light and adopt it”

    That is listed as an element of “white supremacy culture” yet it is also an element of all the anti-racism fixes that get bandied about.

  8. Based upon this logic, because Critical Race Theory when written is unintelligible, it is also racist. In fact, any written message that leaves a reader in need of further explanation is racist.

    1. Indeed, I had to ask what CRT meant a few months ago here, and Paul Topping kindly informed me.

      These CRT people are obviously anti-north geographicists who hate Canucks! Or old fart ones anyway! Besides, the skin on my ears changes colour (oops, color!) quite often with freezing and sunburning, though I suppose I’m a whiter than white whitey after a toqueless ski–but sometimes a redskin in summer.

      Sorry, but flippant sneering sarcasm is the only sensible response to both CRT and Acronym Racist Theory, ART.

      Maybe I should check whether my local Faculty of ARTS has yet been polluted with CRT. Then I can write a paper for them showing how 2nd order CRTheory has no complete proof system, and so explain why their wonderful ideas tend to be unconvincing to a mathematician.

      1. “Or old fart ones anyway!
        [..]
        Maybe I should check whether my local Faculty of ARTS”

        There’s a joke to be made here but I am afraid someone will call me a racist for making acronyms (enacronyming).

  9. Woke idiocy strikes again. Sigh.

    There is a teeny-tiny smidgen of truth here, in that acronyms exclude people who are unfamiliar with the field in question. But the solution to this is education, not banning acronyms. I’m white, and I wasn’t born knowing that HDAC stands for histone deacetylase; I had to learn it during my graduate studies.

    The whole list of “white supremacy markers” strikes me as the soft bigotry of low expectations. “We can’t expect Black people to be punctual and well-read and to value meritocracy! That would be racist!!!”

  10. The trouble with acronyms, of course, is that they are composed of letters.
    We may soon see educrats expressing opposition to “Sesame Street” for its devotion to teaching letters—and, even worse, numbers. The
    “white culture” party line is always hostile to quantitfication or any use
    of dread “quantitative” (as opposed to “qualitative”) thinking.

    At the risk of armchair psychoanalysis, I can’t help suspecting that all this stuff goes back to certain childhood traumas. Maybe the Judith Katz sort of educrats never got over a deep resentment over their difficulties in the 3rd grade learning sums, and after that, the terror of fractions. What better way
    to get over it, and pad their own self-esteem, than to reject the whole idea as a cultural artifact, and a tool of oppression?

        1. Grover’s my fave. My now 35-yr.-old son chewed the nose off his Grover when he was in his crib. I replaced the nose with red corduroy and G is still being enjoyed by my son’s 2nd little girl. Amazing none of our dogs got to it first

  11. In Okun’s list of white supremacy characteristics, I’m seeing a lot of potential for malicious compliance. Picture a scene at an imaginary workplace:

    Okun: Did you see the email I sent you?

    Jerry: No, I don’t read emails. Worship of the written word is white supremacy!

    Okun: What? But that email was about that important project you’re working on! I need an update!

    Jerry: I’ll get to it when I get to it. I wouldn’t want to project a sense of urgency. That’s white supremacy, too!

    Okun: Aargh!

    Jerry: Are you saying there’s only one right way to do things – your way? You’re displaying a lot of white supremacy characteristics lately. Maybe you need counseling.

    1. Great stuff, drosophilist!

      “Jerry” will really have ” Okun” over a barrel when he finally delivers the project to him – either for demanding “perfectionism” or else “quantity over quality”, which are both apparently indicators of white supremacy.

    1. I once heard someone include (intentionally, for humorous purposes) in a list of military acronyms, “NINCOMPOOP”, formed on analogy with “CINCPAC” (commander in chief, Pacific).

      GCM

        1. Maybe something like Ninth Command Police Operations Organization Pacific. It’s all imagination.

          Kind of like my company AAFES, Army & Air Force Exchange Service – it still kind of tells you nothing.

          1. I just checked a MASH fan website. On MASH, a character said “NINCOMPAC”, which is more subtle (and funnier) than “NINCOMPOOP”. “NINCOMPOOP” must be a ‘mutation’ of the MASH version.

            GCM

      1. A shipmate on a ship homeported in Guam rented a house located away from town. As master of his house he adopted the title COMNAVBOONIEPAC (after COMNAVMARIANAS, etc.).

        I see that Okun is DOCUMENTED at https://keywiki.org/Tema_Okun.

        To say out loud the words for which the last two letters of NAACP stand has been problematical for some time. Are there any who use the acronym who don’t know what it stands for? Perhaps it should be modified to NAAP(O?)C?

      1. I think it is kind of a disease. Maybe a virus? So if I worked for one all those years I am really infected. Maybe completely immune.

    2. For fun, i was at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration(not an acronym) for 32 years, famous for its acronyms. My organizational billet was DCB/FDCD/FSD/LARC/NASA. I am glad that Jerry has tsken this business (mishigos yes to some of us, but serious to way too many to be ignored) on: both in this morning’s earlier posting and in this one…it ties into jonathon rausch’s analysis that jerry alluded to a couple of weeks ago and this might allow for some airing out of the matter…if there are enough readers from diverse viewpoints.

    3. I used to love coming in from the field and having access to the AAFES, even little temporary ones. I have never been a drinker, so shopping therapy was always a big treat for me.
      Anyone who contributed to that organization will always get the benefit of the doubt from me.

      1. Well thanks for that. We know that most people do not have a clue about AAFES and even many of the folks who do use it don’t really know much. I know that when I was in the service many years ago AAFES was nothing compared to what it has become. It was a good place to work most of the time and a great place to retire from.

    1. Don’t get your hopes up. We’ve been dealing with thousands of years worth of other religions. This variation is just getting started.

    2. Like the QAnon conspiracy theories, the Woke perceptions of what is racism get more and more far-fetched. There is some dynamic driving the claims of these loons, but I am not sure what it is.

      1. Religious faith communities rely on beliefs-in-the-ridiculous as a way of demonstrating member commitment to the group.

        1. That is a pretty good analogy. To prove you are truly a Trumpista or truly Woke, you have to say crazier and crazier things. For Trumpistas, the end product is MTG. I think the Woke still have a way to go.

    1. Indeed – LGBTTIQQ2SA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, intersex, queer, questioning, two-spirited, and allies). FFS!

  12. The fact is that many of these are aspects of American business culture (and probably business culture worldwide), and while that was largely white for many decades, many of these are pragmatic rules adopted to make organizations more efficient. To see them as “white or black” avoids the necessity of seeing which of these are actually inimical to success or efficiency, regardless of what race you are.

    But, “success” and “efficiency” are white supremacist concepts. The are “other ways of being successful”, don’t you know? Success as efficient use of resources, increasing profits, compensating employees well, providing stock share growth, and dividends to investors, etc. are only a social construction of “success”. I’m sure people will recognize this with their investment choices any day now (and go for “other ways of being successful”).

    /sarcasm

  13. Light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation is going to slow down some of my lectures 🙂 And no more WEIT I guess.

    1. No, chucklehead, I did NOT vote for this, and this was in play before Biden was elected. Wokeness may increase under Biden but he’s one hell of a better person to lead the country than the moronic and narcissistic Trump, who you apparently favor. I suggest you go converse over at Parler.

  14. I’m late to this party, but it seems to me that the real “privilege” here is having the time and resources to sit, ponder and worry about “problems” of this sort. The truly oppressed are having a tough enough time putting a roof over their heads and food on the table. This is not something they will likely lose sleep over.

    Can we accuse wokeness itself of being a sign of white privilege that must be destroyed, wrap it up and move on?

    1. I’d argue that wokeness is a manifestation of class privilege rather than white privilege, otherwise pretty much so, yes.

  15. The reason behind their concerns is obvious, really:

    Acronym=Achieved covert racism or Nazified your meaning!

  16. Herr Doktor Schenck is correct in his mention of the military and their aggressive use of acronyms. For one thing, ambiguity is not acceptable in most military situations, but conciseness is critical.

    My Dad used to fly for a unit that had the acronym “YGBSM” on their uniforms and lots of other places. I was a teenager before I was told that it came from an expression often uttered when they were briefed on an upcoming mission.

  17. Love the self-defeating contradiction of labelling both “perfectionism” and “quantity over quality” as characteristics of white supremacy. Basically, it’s everything plus the thing I just thought of.

  18. Well, that was handy. A VP for a certain math organization just unaware-dly sent me a perfect puzzle for your delectation: The acronym

    …………………….OURFA**2M**2……..i.e. …..OURFAAMM……..

    for participants here to puzzle out–no online cheating–remember ** is exponent; I don’t know how to do it literally except in LaTeX. It’s close to the topic of this post. No more hints. The non-prize is awarded only within a limit of noon tomorrow when all will be revealed.

    1. OURFAAMM =
      Online Undergraduate Resource Fair for the Advancement in Academia of Marginalized Mathematicians

      Jumped the gun, but I’d forgotten a late morning dental appointment.

      I’d hoped someone could invent a humorous alternative. But the answer is not unrelated to this thread.

      1. Opportunities of Unlimited Reacceleration For Antiracist Achievement in Meliorating Magisteria

        ^^^that made me nauseous. I saw “Reacceleration” recently. Mind blowing – reacceleration – third derivative, or is it fourth?

        1. Good one.

          3rd derivative is usually called ‘jerk’ in English, so maybe 4th for re-acceleration..
          4th is jerk of the velocity, or better the acceleration of the acceleration or the
          velocity of the velocity of the velocity of the velocity, of the position etc….

          It’s like trying to read medieval math/science, assuming 21st century english.

  19. It is all so head swirlingly incoherent, so random and senseless. What’s the point of it all, anyway? Are we getting somewhere with this random association of brain farts?
    Goodness. Maybe it is a parody? Maybe we’ve been had? Surely.
    D.A.
    NYC

  20. I think this makes the most sense if you look at it through the lens of power politics. In our cultural archetypes, when peasants meet a monarch or dictator, they do not eat potato chips and sprawl all over that person’s couch. When a nervous intern meets a billionaire CEO, she generally doesn’t kick back and put her feet up on that person’s desk. There is an expectation that they will be breathlessly nervous and on guard, wondering if what they are doing is “right”. Walking on eggshells shows the power of the person or group being tiptoed around. And it’s power play 101 to demand nonsensical, arbitrary things to affirm and display one’s status – an example might be the comical demands of a rock star or celebrity regarding their dressing room.

    I think the far Left wants to clearly assert it’s power after Trump… the problem is, that becomes a self-destructive cycle. People look at such behavior, say “Who do you think you are?!”, and then they feel disrespected and double down on their attempts to gain compliance, going from banning President’s names to banning acronyms. Jumping right in with petty tyranny is not the way to build a strong base of support.

  21. A belated thought… the term “racism” for the left is getting to be like the term “socialism” for the right. i.e. Used as a catch-all word that simply signals “this is another thing we want you to oppose.”

    Thoughts?

  22. Nowadays, with the internet, every nutcase can get their 15 min of fame. It’s my opinion that most of these claims are made by lunatics, or maybe provocateurs who put out this trash because it get’s media attention, or maybe gets them to go viral/trending for a short time. And my bet is that the people at PETA who claimed “white foods were racist” are still drinking their homemade hazelnut milks and eating their aged tofu.

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