Malcolm X Creating a Rhetoric of Difference

To my mother, who taught me to believe in myself, and the values of empathy and kindness. You will always be my greatest role model.

To my father, who taught me how to work hard and be strong in the face of adversity. I strive to be like you.

To my grandparents, for taking care of me and showing me the way. I will always have your back.

To Dr. Carney, for teaching me to the values of being a man for others and committed to justice. I will always remember your wise words and courage.

Keywords: Identity, Race, Agency, Power, Space


In our society, certain groups of people face unique challenges for being “different.” I am sure some of us have experienced issues and hardship for being different or counter-cultural. I believe that we mustn’t shy away from our differences, but rather embrace them. By having a diverse culture, we can create a better society.  Historically in the United States of America, people of color, women, the disabled, and members of the LGBTQ+ community, among others, were neglected and discriminated against by straight White men solely for looking and/or acting differently from the “hegemonic” culture. Levels of discrimination and neglect persist to this day. For example, Black people were only recognized as 3/5ths of a person until 1863, and women did not gain the right to vote until 1920. During the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, Black Americans across the country stood up and bravely fought for equality in a manifestly racist country. One of these freedom fighters was Malcolm X. In his famous speech “The Ballot or the Bullet,” Malcolm X expressed ideas of Black self-defense, autonomy, and identity. He took a different approach relative to other Civil Rights leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Rather than seeking acceptance and approval from White society; he wanted to empower Black Americans to re-take control of their own identity and narrative. He did not want Black Americans to view themselves as marginalized and subservient to White culture. In this paper, I analyze one of Malcolm X’s most famous speeches: “The Ballot or the Bullet” using Lisa Flores’ rhetoric of difference. I argue that by rejecting White societal standards and norms and utilizing a rhetoric of difference, Malcolm X seeks to reclaim his Black identity, reject White-imposed stereotypes and worldviews, and tell Black stories. I care deeply about this issue because I love our country, and it pains me to see the continuation of racial divisions and animosity. As White Americans, we can and must do better. For non-White people reading this, I hope that you may see my perspective and recognize my sincere effort to positively change our culture.


In “Creating Discursive Space Through A Rhetoric of Difference: Chicana Feminists Craft a Homeland,” Lisa Flores argues that for Chicana feminists to regain identity and agency over their own lives and narratives, they need to create a rhetoric of difference. According to Flores, a rhetoric of difference “includes repudiating mainstream discourse and espousing self and group-centered discourse” (Flores 145). This idea of creating a “rhetoric of difference” and rejecting stereotypes and racist narratives imposed on groups by others is quite powerful. We can use this rhetorical theory to analyze many other artifacts. Later, I will use Flores’ theory to analyze Malcolm X’s rhetoric. Flores believes that Chicana feminists can construct and maintain a rhetoric of difference by rejecting the marginalization, stereotypes, and white-imposed narratives about their identity; Chicana feminists can build a space, and work to make that space a home (Flores 146).  Flores discusses this idea in terms of margins and a center. Since Chicana feminists live on the U.S.- Mexico border, they have usually been viewed as a “marginalized” group of people. Flores argues that Chicana feminists must reject the marginalization imposed on them by others to build a rhetoric of difference. Chicana feminists must recognize that they are the center of their own world and are not marginalized (Flores 147-148).


By rejecting White societal standards and norms, Malcolm X utilizes a “rhetoric of difference” and seeks to create agency and a space for Black Americans. Additionally, Malcolm X sought to advance ideas of Black self-defense and autonomy. As Flores believed Chicana feminists could establish a rhetoric of difference by having pride in their culture, Malcolm X thought it was crucial for Black Americans to have pride in their heritage to recognize their power and regain autonomy. It is important to note, however, that while they use similar strategies and rhetorical techniques, they had different missions and audiences. In “The Ballot or the Bullet,” Malcolm X says,


It is not necessary to change the white man’s mind. We have to change our own mind…We’ve got to change our own minds about each other…We have to come together with warmth so we can develop unity and harmony that’s necessary to get this problem solved ourselves (Malcolm X).


Malcolm X is establishing a rhetoric of difference. He wants Black Americans to stop seeking acceptance and approval from White society. Rather than changing White minds, he seeks to change Black minds and attitudes about themselves.


Malcolm X used a rhetoric of difference to encourage Black Americans to reclaim their identity and reject stereotypes imposed on them by others. Black scholars have made similar arguments. For example, John Henrik Clarke, a historian of Africana studies, writes extensively about how Black Americans must recognize their own unique identity and history to create a space for themselves and reach their fullest potential (Clarke 43-44). He believes that Black people need to tell their own stories rather than let others dictate the terms. Other scholars such as Robert E. Terrill thought that Malcolm X used his rhetoric to help Black Americans “refashion their identities” and become “a people other than that which the dominant culture has told them they must be” (Terrill 68). Clarke’s and Terrill’s work highlight the importance of Black people controlling their own historical narrative and reclaiming their sense of identity and space in American society.


I recognize that many older White Americans who saw Malcolm X in the media when he was alive, may disagree with my argument. They may not view Malcolm X’s speeches and writings in the context of a rhetoric of difference. His work and rhetoric can be seen as divisive and ineffective in helping Black Americans. In fact, Malcolm X and Dr. King often clashed over their views and rhetoric. While Malcolm X’s rhetoric did not help pass civil rights legislation in the way that Dr. King’s did, he served an essential role by elevating Black voices and telling Black stories. Scholar Andrea Collier writes about how it is essential for Black Americans to tell their own stories. She notes that, “storytelling for Black America is a way of saying I am here, and I matter” (Collier). Malcolm X utilized a rhetoric of difference to allow Black stories to be heard and to advance Black autonomy and agency.


I sincerely hope that in this paper, I successfully demonstrated the power of Malcolm X’s rhetoric in advancing justice for Black Americans. I analyzed a portion of Malcolm X’s speech “The Ballot or the Bullet” in the context of Lisa Flores’ theory of a “rhetoric of difference” to show how he advanced ideas of Black self-defense, autonomy, and identity. By reclaiming their identity, rejecting White imposed stereotypes and worldviews, and telling their own stories, Malcolm X established a rhetoric of difference and helped give agency to Black Americans across the country. Injustice and inequality persist in our country today. People still make assumptions about minority groups and try to impose narratives on them. To make a better, more caring, understanding, loving, and accepting society, historically “marginalized” groups establish their own rhetoric of difference. By understanding our history and each other, I believe that together decent people of all races, classes, genders, sexual orientations, and creeds can create a vibrant culture and fundamentally transform this country for the better.


Works Cited


Clarke, John Henrik. “African-American Historians and the Reclaiming of African History.” Présence Africaine, vol. 110, no. 2, 1979, p. 43-44., doi:10.3917/presa.110.0029.


Collier, Andrea. “Why Telling Our Own Story Is so Powerful for Black Americans.” Greater Good,


Flores, Lisa A. “Creating Discursive Space Through a Rhetoric of Difference: Chicana Feminists Craft a Homeland.” Quarterly Journal of Speech, vol. 82, no. 2, 1996, pp. 142–156., doi:10.1080/00335639609384147.


Malcolm X. “The Ballot or the Bullet.” Malcolm x: The Ballot or the Bullet,


Terrill, Robert E. “Colonizing the Borderlands: Shifting Circumference in the Rhetoric of Malcolm X.” Quarterly Journal of Speech, vol. 86, no. 1, 2000, pp. 68.,



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