The Power of Co-Opting: Language Is Changing, But Will It Change the Status Quo?
April 7, 2022
April 7, 2022
Language is powerful. The words we use signal how we make sense of the world – and people – around us. When we use the term “people of color,” it signals that we have defined diversity against a standard of Whiteness. When we describe people as “disadvantaged,” we diminish the fullness of their humanity and de-emphasize the unjust systems that shape those words. And when we call a system that surveils, regulates, punishes, and forcibly separates families a “child welfare system,” we misconstrue that system’s purpose and actions.
That is why the upEND Movement, along with our fellow advocates engaging in abolition work, has been intentional in our use of language. We use terms that point to societal failures rather than individualizing blame and pathologizing groups of people. We use the term family policing system as we, in community, help grow a movement to abolish it. We describe the tools of that system using words like coercive and controlling, and we call their use acts of violence and oppression.
But that is just the beginning. We find inspiration from Ruth Wilson Gilmore, who reminds us that abolition is about presence, not absence. When we speak of – and do the work of – abolition, we use words like imagining, reimagining, and transforming the world into a place where the family policing system, along with other racist, classist carceral systems, has become obsolete. We work from the complete definition of abolition, which is about imagining and building better ways of supporting one another – and remembering ways of life before colonization – as much as it is about dismantling systems that cause harm.
As we have intentionally used these words, we’ve noticed a trend emerging – one that is not new to the history of movement work, but is new to the work of abolishing family policing. The trend is that those who support and uphold the work of the family policing system have started using those words – have adopted them – too. Reform is no longer enough, they say. Foundations, community organizations, and even leaders within the family policing system itself are using the language of reimagining and transformation.
We must pay close attention to what’s on the other end of these words when used in those contexts. Reimagining what? Transforming to what? Too often, they are referring to creating a new system of child and family well-being. That sounds like an improvement, right? Not necessarily. It is critical that we look beyond the words and at the work itself. When we do, we see a lack of engagement with the full meaning and practice of abolition. Why is that?
Ask a simple question: does the work contribute to upholding and maintaining a system that surveils, regulates, and separates children from their families, or does it contribute to moving resources out of that system and into families and communities? When we ask this question, we do not see work that shrinks the system, as abolition calls us to do, but rather work to reallocate the vast resources within it, to create new offices and funding streams that do nothing to alter the system’s core. It’s mostly window dressing – “transformation” that results in self-preservation.
We may use some of the same words, but there are fundamental differences in our beliefs and in our goals. We find it helpful to look to the work of prison and police abolitionists to contextualize these differences. For example, comparing the policy platform of 8 Can’t Wait to that of 8 to Abolition shows that while both aim to tackle the vast injustices of the criminal legal system, there are differences in their end goals. As many abolitionists have questioned in regards to the Prison Industrial Complex, is our goal to build kinder, gentler, “more humane” prisons?
At the upEND movement, our goal is not a kinder, gentler family policing system. It’s not a family policing system that offers more mandatory or even “voluntary” preventive services while the violent tool of separation lingers behind those services. It’s not a system that forcibly separates fewer kids from their families, nor is it one that seeks racial equity within a harmful system over racial justice and liberation from that system. Instead, it focuses on ending harm perpetuated by both the state and within communities in ways that create accountability for harm without reproducing it.
Abolition is an affirmative vision about what is possible. What we imagine is nothing short of an entirely different approach – one that does not include the carceral tools of surveillance, regulation, and separation of families – to nurture and grow an entirely different world. That may sound unrealistic to some, but abolition is not a faraway utopia. Many have been doing this work for decades, and it is work that continues to grow. It lives daily in transformative justice initiatives, mutual aid programs, and the myriad community-led and community-driven responses to the pandemic.
Co-opting language and ideas to conform to the status quo is a long used, often invisible tool that White supremacy culture deploys to preserve its dominance. In her new book The Color of Abolition, Linda Hershman details the complex relationship between abolitionist Frederick Douglass and the elite White “allies” who befriended him. She uncovers their attempts to exert influence and control over Douglass’s powerful words and advocacy to abolish slavery, in order to downplay its urgency and limit its impact. This is but one set of early examples in a long history that includes everything from the federal government co-opting the radical food justice vision of the Black Panthers to performative corporate displays of support for the Black Lives Matter movement.
So as we do this work, we are mindful of the ways that language – and movements – have been co-opted before us. This moment in time reminds us that while abolition work is an act of love, strength, and resistance, it is not guaranteed. It can be fragile, it requires nurturing and protecting, it requires being in community with one another, and it requires being led by families and youth most impacted by the current family policing system. Imagining is hard. It can be joyful and fun, too. Most of all, it takes time.
And it begins by holding fast to the space to do it. It begins within the embrace of a supportive community to process, to unlearn, to grapple. A forthcoming paper by RISE, written collectively by a group of parents whose lives have been impacted by the family policing system, beautifully illustrates the time, space, safety, and community needed to engage in abolition learning and practice – especially for those whose lives and loved ones have experienced the violence of family policing.
In Abolition Now!, Alexis Pauline Gumbs asks, “What if abolition isn’t a shattering thing, not a crashing thing, not a wrecking ball event? … What if abolition is something that grows?” Abolition is a vision of hope to end harmful institutional practices and collectively build life-affirming resources, supports, and relationships so that families can thrive. The language of abolition should be matched in actions, not used to describe surface-level revisions to the same carceral system. We must speak up when the language of abolition is co-opted to describe something it is not. And we must protect spaces to imagine the steps that bring us closer to a world where family policing is obsolete.
By Joanna Lack, Alan Dettlaff, and Kristen Weber