Social Justice Usage
Source: hooks, bell. Feminism Is for Everybody: Passionate Politics. South End Press, 2000, p. 94.
I came to feminism before I had my first sexual experience. I was a teenager. Before I knew anything about women’s rights I knew about homosexuality. In the narrowminded world of southern religious fundamentalism, of racial apartheid, in our black community gay people were known and often had special status; often they were men with class power. Homosexuality among men was more accepted than lesbianism. The lesbians in our small, segregated black community were usually married. Yet they knew who they really were. And they let their real selves be known behind closed doors, at secret jook joints and parties. One of the women accused of being lesbian chose to mentor me; a professional woman, a reader, a thinker, a party girl, she was a woman I admired. When my father complained about our bonding on the basis that she was “funny,” mama protested, insisting that “folks had a right to be who they are.”
New Discourses Commentary
One of the more confusing quirks of language in the activism of Critical Social Justice is their adoption of the term “folks” to stand in place of “people” or terms meant to address people in a more inclusive way. This isn’t merely confusing for people who encounter Critical Social Justice literature and speech; the reasoning for it seems to lack consensus even among people who subscribe to Critical Social Justice itself. (This, as a fact in and of itself, is rather interesting, as one feature of Critical Social Justice tends to be an almost obsessive tendency to explain their own justifications for things as a means of demonstrating their moral superiority.)
In addition to the lack of clarity, there is also some variation in the likely etymologies that led to near-universal adoption of “folks” across the various scholarly and activist “woke” cultures associated with Critical Social Justice. These depend on which branch of Theory is most relevant. At least four or five main threads seem apparent, however, with the two most influential arising out of critical race Theory and queer Theory.
The intriguing question of how “folks” became standard parlance in the academically elite speech of Critical Social Justice is, in fact, less likely to be interesting as a matter of etymology and more likely to be interesting in terms of why the language was accepted as a part of the elite speech after the fact. The broad-strokes etymology appears rather clear upon reading something like Patricia Hill Collins’ landmark 1990 book Black Feminist Thought, wherein the word “folks” appears a number of times, nearly always in the context of quotations. From these uses, a rather straightforward etymology can be guessed at with some accuracy.
A most likely proximate etymology is that much of the anti-black racism and patriarchal sexism that black feminists and other radical feminists were fighting originated in “folksy” places like the Southern United States and other predominantly conservative regions (see also, cultural racism). There, that kind of language was simply part of the lexicon: “white folks,” “black folks,” “old folks,” “womenfolk,” and so on. Nearly every quotation used in Black Feminist Thought reads as though this is the most likely root of the word (which also explains why the Southernism “y’all” has also been taken up by the otherwise snobbishly elite Critical Social Justice lexicon). As can be seen below, there’s something deeper to this usage, however, that falls outside of the scope of this Encyclopedia to explain (see link).
Thus, the etymology of the word “folks,” thus the stranger “folx,” in the Critical Social Justice lexicon is likely to be rather straightforward (though with some fascinating depth to it). It leaves something to be desired, though, and that requires understanding both why it’s used and why it has caught on. The harder question becomes why such “folksy” (or “folxy”) language squares with the mindset underlying Critical Social Justice. To this more interesting question, we now turn our attention.
Speaking in general to the mindset of Critical Social Justice ahead of these, as these mores are likely why the convention was so widely adopted (whatever its origins), there are two primary concerns. One, the lesser of these, has to do with their understanding of systemic power and the critical need to disrupt it. “Folks” generally carries a gentle, inclusive connotation that reduces the perception of a power dynamic between speaker and listener (with speaker dominant) and between writer and reader (with writer dominant – see also, death of the author). The use of “folks” as a linguistic convention tends to soften these implicit power dynamics, which fits with the general ethos of Critical Social Justice.
Another such general mindset relevant to the colloquial meaning of the word “folk,” as opposed to potential alternatives, especially “people,” is that it subtly implies a certain groupishness. This line of thought is the more significant of the two in explaining its use and adoption. It is the inherent groupish feel of the word “folks,” if not a full-on implication of group identity that goes with it. In fact, “folks” has a very down-to-earth and almost clannish connotation—it defines a “folk,” which derived from the German word “Volk” gives it considerable depth. Because Critical Social Justice always thinks in terms of (identity) group membership, a preference for the word “folks” would resonate with that mindset.
This reasoning keeps with the view in Critical Social Justice that universalism among humans is a problematic, indeed an “ideology” constructed and maintained by the powerful and privileged in society to ensure that members of marginalized, oppressed, and minoritized groups do not realize their oppression. “People” therefore harkens to something universal in humanity, which is not allowed, whereas folks implies a more local and authentic community. This reading is palpable in Collins’ Black Feminist Thought, as can be seen in the provided examples below. On the other hand, the same could be said in the opposite direction: that “people” as a term leads us to think about individuals rather than groups, and individualism is similarly rejected by the worldview of Critical Social Justice. We can have people as a whole or individual people, but no one is an individual “folk” nor is there any universal “folks.” “Folks” at once implies group membership and yet specific group membership.
Two lines of thought specific to Critical Social Justice—critical race Theory and queer Theory—both seem to have adopted “folks,” perhaps for unrelated reasons. Within critical race Theory, the usage seems to track back to W. E. B. Du Bois, who likely imported the linguistic habit from the African American Vernacular English of the time when he wrote The Souls of Black Folk (1903), which is considered a central classic in whiteness studies (like most of Du Bois’s work). Du Bois’s usage can, in fact, be traced significantly to his extended trip to study culture in Germany, particularly taking up with the Volkish cultural theories of Johann Gottfried von Herder (for more, see link).
The general mindset of critical race Theory and whiteness studies today is that white people erect themselves (especially linguistically – see also, discourse and Foucauldian) as the default people. Theory reads this as creating a power-laden situation wherein white people, when speaking the dominant colloquial English, use the word “people,” they tend to mean “white people,” and white people only. In Theory, this follows because whiteness is allegedly hegemonic (see also, white ignorance and willful ignorance). If they (white people) meant “black people” or “Hispanic people,” or any other such racial group, they would specify with “black” or “Hispanic” before people (see also, anti-blackness), but they (allegedly) do not do this when they mean “white people” (that they very frequently do seems either irrelevant or to be seen as a partial success of Theory). It is only when speaking of white people, Theory argues, that white people just say “people.” Though not actually true in any regard, this problematic is not present in the word “folks,” due to its groupish connotation (“which folks do you mean?” being a natural question). This way of understanding the words “people” and “folks” very likely led to its adoption as conventional woke speech, despite lacking the usual necessary elitism.
Within queer Theory, the use of the word “folks” seems to have arisen in the effort to find a suitable gender-neutral term that replaces the colloquial gender-neutral use of the word “guys” (see also, impact versus intent, gender, and to gender). So, “hey guys” gets replaced by “hey folks.” (Theory regards the concept of a gender-neutral use of the word “guys” as by-definition impossible and sees even the notion that such a thing as possible as proof of sexist assumptions being baked into language – see also, phallogocentrism and deconstruction.) “Folks” would similarly serve to replace “ladies and gentlemen,” which implies a sex and/or gender binary (see also, man, woman, and violence of categorization). Such uses of language are considered profoundly problematic by gender studies and queer Theory. This is why the word “folks” in this context so often appears as “queer folks” or “non-binary folks,” which avoids calling the first group “queers,” which is still a slur, while signaling an intentional use of gender-neutral language. This is seen as more inclusive.
Being that queer Theory is what it is, it even classifies “folks” as being inherently gendered, despite being gender neutral and is therefore replaced by “folx.” This claim makes no sense in everyday logic but has two explanations within queer-Theoretic logic (see also, queering). One, which almost makes sense, is that the term for “folks” in languages other than English is sometimes a gendered word (for example, “la gente” in Spanish is gendered feminine). As “folx” isn’t a real word in any language, including Esperanto, it also can be defined to be ungendered (or anti-gendered, more accurately) in all languages. The other, which makes no etymological sense in reality but perfect sense in the completely political logic of Theory, is that “folx” signals commitment to this rejection of any possibility of gendered language at all, i.e., it is a wholly political use of language that actively signals maximal inclusivity. In this regard, it is very similar to other linguistic projects such as “womxn” and “Latinx,” which seek to remove the “man” from “woman” in the first case (see also, womyn) and to ungender (or anti-gender) Latino/Latina (see also, phallogocentrism, Derridean, and deconstruction).
These two etymologies seem to have little to do with one another but likely have some relationship to a common third, which is a clear and intentional step away from both liberal and Marxist uses of the word “people,” which thus associates the word “people” with the Old Left (see also, New Left and Neo-Marxism). The liberal left would see “people” in that simultaneously individualizing and universalizing way, as mentioned above, and the Marxist Old Left would have identified “The People” as those against the bourgeois elites and capitalists. A deliberate application of “folks” to replace “people” would serve to demarcate a departure from those Old Left approaches for the New Left approaches that splintered off from them in the late 1960s and since.
See also – Folx
Anti-blackness; Authentic; Binary; Black feminism; Conservative; Critical; Critical race Theory; Cultural racism; Death of the author; Deconstruction; Derridean; Discourse; Disrupt; Dominant; Folx; Foucauldian; Gender; Gender (v.); Gender studies; Hegemony; Identity; Ideology; Impact versus intent; Inclusion; Individualism; Latinx; Liberal; Man; Marginalization; Marxism; Minoritize; Neo-Marxism; Non-binary; New Left; Oppression; Patriarchy; Phallogocentrism; Privilege; Problematic; Queer; Queer (v.); Queer Theory; Racism (systemic); Radical feminism; Reality; Social construction; Social Justice; Systemic power; Theory; Truth; Universalism; Violence of categorization; White; White ignorance; Whiteness; Whiteness studies; Willful ignorance; Woke/Wokeness; Woman; Womxn; Womyn
Source: hooks, bell. Feminism Is for Everybody: Passionate Politics. South End Press, 2000, p. vii.
Everywhere I go I proudly tell folks who want to know who I am and what I do that I am a writer, a feminist theorist, a cultural critic. I tell them I write about movies and popular culture, analyzing the message in the medium. Most people find this exciting and want to know more. Everyone goes to movies, watches television, glances through magazines, and everyone has thoughts about the messages they receive, about the images they look at. It is easy for the diverse public I encounter to understand what I do as a cultural critic, to understand my passion for writing (lots of folks want to write, and do). But feminist theory – that’s the place where the questions stop. Instead I tend to hear all about the evil of feminism and the bad feminists: how “they” hate men; how “they” want to go against nature – and god; how “they” are all lesbians; how “they” are taking all the jobs and making the world hard for white men, who do not stand a chance.
Source: Collins, Patricia Hill. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment, second edition. Routledge, 2000, p. 103.
My decision to pursue my doctorate was stimulated by a similar experience. In 1978 I offered a seminar as part of a national summer institute for teachers and other school personnel. After my Chicago workshop, an older Black woman participant whispered to me, “Honey, I’m real proud of you. Some folks don’t want to see you up there [in the front of the classroom], but you belong there. Go back to school and get your Ph.D., and then they won’t be able to tell you nothing!” To this day, I thank her and try to do the same for others. In talking with other African-American women, I have discovered that many of us have had similar experiences.
Source: Collins, Patricia Hill. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment, second edition. Routledge, 2000, p. 34.
The commonplace, taken-for-granted knowledge shared by African-American women growing from our everyday thoughts and actions constitutes a first and most fundamental level of knowledge. The ideas that Black women share with one another on an informal, daily basis about topics such as how to style our hair, characteristics of “good” Black men, strategies for dealing with White folks, and skills of how to “get over” provide the foundations for this taken-for-granted knowledge.
Source: Collins, Patricia Hill. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment, second edition. Routledge, 2000, pp. 38–39.
In a conversation with her mother, Walker refines this epistemological vision: “I believe that the truth about any subject only comes when all sides of the story are put together, and all their different meanings make one new one. Each writer writes the missing parts to the other writer’s story. And the whole story is what I’m after.” Her mother’s response to Walker’s vision of the possibilities of dialogues and coalitions hints at the difficulty of sustaining such dialogues across differences in power: “‘Well, I doubt if you can ever get the true missing parts of anything away from the white folks,’ my mother says softly, so as not to offend the waitress who is mopping up a nearby table; ‘they’ve sat on the truth so long by now they’ve mashed the life out of it.’”
Revision date: 5/20/20