The Racist Roots of Parler’s Weirdly French Name

From par-lay to par-lor, it’s deeply symbolic that right-wing extremists have found refuge in the app

Following the attack on the U.S. Capitol last week, and President Donald Trump’s removal from Twitter and Facebook, downloads of the “free speech” app Parler have reportedly surged by more than 500%. Parler is a last bastion for the kind of dreck that mainstream social platforms are finally banning: anti-Semitism, hate speech, calls for violence, and the like.

If you’re confused as to why an app that caters to rabidly nationalist far-right Americans has a French-sounding name, you’re not alone. Technologist Sara Watson recently posed the question on Twitter, writing, “I can’t be the only one pronouncing Parler in my head as french, non?” A quick perusal of the network shows hundreds of people who are similarly confused about the app’s name.

It turns out Watson isn’t wrong: Parler’s name was originally intended to be pronounced the French way, “par-lay.” As Ars Technica reports, “The service takes its name from the French verb parler, meaning ‘to speak’ (or sometimes, ‘to talk’) as in the examples ‘Parlez-vous français?’ or ‘Je veux parler avec ton gérant.’” (The latter translates to “I want to speak to your manager.”)

The link to the French verb makes sense given the app’s supposed emphasis on free speech. The name might also be inspired by the historical concept of a “parley” (itself likely inspired by the French verb), which referred to “a conference between opposing sides.” Parler calls its posts “parleys,” which lends this explanation credence and further links the app’s name to the French verb.

CEO John Matze rebranded it “to the more straightforward pronunciation ‘Parlour’ (as in the type of room) after realizing his users were saying it that way anyways.”

Given the app’s often deeply xenophobic audience, the foreign origins of its name are more than a little strange. But taken in a different context, Parler’s name is a perfect fit for the app’s audience and goals. According to Gizmodo, “Parlor was originally pronounced ‘Parlay’ (meaning to speak in French),” but CEO John Matze rebranded it “to the more straightforward pronunciation ‘Parlour’ (as in the type of room) after realizing his users were saying it that way anyways.”

Image: JHU Sheridan Libraries/Levy/Gado

In Victorian times, a parlour (Americanized to “parlor”) was a room in the home set aside for formal occasions. As American Heritage noted in 1963, it was “a bower of fringe and needlepoint, cabbage roses and lambrequins, ottomans and little spindle chairs on which a lady might perch daintily in her crinoline” — all the finery that marked a Victorian family as high class.

As historian Paul Mullins writes in his essay “Racializing the Parlor” from the 2001 book Race and the Archaeology of Identity, the concept of a parlor was racially charged from the beginning. Parlors were intended to display a family’s “utter embrace of genteel discipline,” and “Black consumers were assumed to be racially incompatible with genteel privilege.” Some wealthy African American families managed to turn this stereotype on its head, but fundamentally the parlor was full of objects that “celebrated ideologies such as white supremacy, American industrial might, Christian superiority, Western domination, and patriarchy.”

Sheet music, which was one of the 19th century’s dominant forms of popular culture, backs up these racial undertones. Minstrel music was a deeply racist musical form in which white performers in blackface imitated African Americans, waltzing through every horrific stereotype imaginable. Minstrel music often addressed the parlor.

For example, consider the 1847 minstrel song titled “Walk in the Parlor.” The cover to the sheet music is a horror show of racist symbolism, and its subtitle notes that its songs are “sung by them.” One line reads, “Walk into the parlor/And hear de banjo ring/And watch de darkey’s fingers/While he picks it on de string.”

The song mocks a slave, who is depicted as sharing his view of various Bible stories and other Western symbolism in a song but gets the details wrong in all kinds of racially stereotyped ways. The idea that the fictional slave is performing his song “in the parlor” is likely meant to underscore his naivete and racial inferiority.

The parlor was a space where white Americans would sing songs mocking Black people, adorn their spaces with symbols of their privilege, and indulge in racism in a private, “safe” setting.

Just as the slave mangles Western stories that would have been familiar to white Victorians, his very presence in such a white and genteel space as the parlor (and the fact that he plays his banjo there) would likely have been hilarious to many Victorian Americans. The contrast between the slave and the parlor underscores the slave’s fundamental primitivity. It sets him up as a foolish, inhuman character, serving to reinforce racial stereotypes of the time.

Given the complex racial (and gender) undertones of the American parlor, the Parler app’s name makes a lot more sense. In Victorian times, many homes’ parlors were places where white Americans could retreat to celebrate, reinforce, and perform their whiteness. The parlor was a space where they would sing songs mocking Black people, adorn their spaces with symbols of their privilege and class-based refinement, and indulge in xenophobia and racism in a private, “safe” setting.

All of that sounds a lot like the kind of activity that takes place on the Parler app. Just as Victorians likely felt threatened by an increasingly diverse, changing, expanding world and thus created the parlor as a place to retreat, modern racists, white supremacists, and anti-Semites — fed up with or forced off mainstream platforms — have created Parler as a place to retreat, speak with other like-minded people and feel safe in expressing their often-bigoted beliefs. “Parler,” then, is the perfect name for the platform. It evokes an idyllic sense of a “sacred” space for connection and communication. But at the same time, it hints at racial, gender, and class-based stereotypes and the idea of a space set aside for conservatism, old ideas, and unapologetic whiteness.

Here’s the final irony, though: The word “parlor” (as in the parlor of a home) is itself derived from the French word parler. Thus, even though Parler’s users have rebranded the app’s name and linked it to a racially charged American space, they can’t escape the foreign influence behind that space’s name.

Victorians retreated to their parlors to escape from a changing world. But ultimately that approach failed — the world changed anyway, and their way of life was swept away with it. Many of Parler’s users may want to escape from our multiethnic, diverse, changing world. But they can’t. The world has changed already, and no amount of segmentation, separation, or creative rebranding will stop that.

Co-Founder & CEO of Gado Images. I write, speak and consult about tech, privacy, AI and photography.

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