On Jan, 10, former President Barack Obama stepped up to a podium in his hometown of Chicago to address the nation for the final time. Filled with power and candor, the stunning piece of rhetoric was a heartbreaking farewell from a leader whose likability has only grown in the face of eminent darkness. One of the most memorable turns in his hour-long speech came when Obama took time to address white Americans in particular:
“For white Americans, it means acknowledging that the effects of slavery and Jim Crow didn’t suddenly vanish in the 60s — that when minority groups voice discontent, they’re not just engaging in reverse racism or practicing political correctness. When they wage peaceful protest, they’re not demanding special treatment but the equal treatment that our Founders promised.”
It is beyond accurate to say that in 2016 political correctness became a buzzword, one of the most significant definers and defenders of ideology. But no one really seems keen on defining it — not Obama in his address, not the media outlets that publish quotes about it, and least of all the leaders who use this phrase themselves. Surely, one of the most talked-about political phrases of the year couldn’t have slipped by without having a definition attached to it.
If you believe what people are saying, political correctness can sound like a pretty scary thing. Political correctness can range from an extensive array of gender pronouns to affirmative action to not being able to call for a Muslim registry, or for building a wall, or the like. Basically, political correctness is language that appeals to liberal sensitivities at the expense of “real” political action — and it all goes back to being able to say what you want to say, like the Constitution promises us we can.
There is, however, something seriously insidious about those who want to pinpoint the damage on being labeled racist and sexist, rather than the consequences of mass deportation, blocking immigrants and refugees, building a wall, stripping away healthcare, limiting access to birth control, ignoring climate change and telling the women and people of color who suffer the most from these measures that they are being sensitive liberal snowflakes.
Perhaps most ridiculous and telling of all are the recent accusations by anti-PC pundits against Star Wars: Rogue One for its apparent display of “political correctness” — in that, according to them, the film is too propagandic, inorganic and arrogant simply for starring powerful women and people of color. These allegations uniquely demonstrate the racist and sexist edge of the phrase “political correctness.”
The people who use this phrase, mainly white men, assert over and over again that they are the ones at risk of being silenced by the sensitive and overwrought left. And yet, they are simultaneously so offended by the presence of female and black and brown bodies on their screens that they cannot stand it. This is, according to them, the end of free expression, politics leaking into the movies like a dirty plague.
Take a moment and imagine your entire world surrounded by movies and ads and television shows starring people who look like you. And imagine still being threatened by the few faces of color that make it to Hollywood. Imagine that luxury. It is this simple example, thanks to Star Wars, that tears the rug right out from under anti-PC critics’ feet, shoves “political correctness” into a spotlight and showcases, so clearly, its insidious second layer. And yet, no one talks about this. No one stops to question what political correctness means — not Donald Trump, not Paul Ryan, not any other conservative leader who uses it. Anti-PC arguments are not aimed toward some higher honoring of the Constitution or the preservation of a free and outspoken democracy; they are –— very clearly — racism and sexism in disguise.
Looking back at his farewell address, Obama is correct. For white Americans, it may be hard to understand the idea of systemic racism. The idea that if born into a certain skin, the course of one’s future may have already been decided by structural disadvantage with roots going back to colonialism. That is a hard, hard fact to wrap your head around, especially if you have never had to think about it. But the idea that the very existence of minority groups threatens the voices of the white majority is wrong, illogical and rooted in fear.
“Political correctness” is never a mandate thrown at someone. In fact, one would be hard-pressed to find a liberal or liberal publication who calls someone out for not being politically correct enough. No, political correctness is a conservative invention, always an insult slammed against something. It is a rock thrown against the tide of a changing, diversifying country, futile even despite the energy behind its claims.
Zoe Cheng is a sophomore majoring in writing for screen and television. Her column, “Cross Section,” runs every other Tuesday.