Calling All White People, Part 58: Words really do matter

TODAY’S EPISODE: Use your words…but maybe not some of *those* ones

There are some things you just shouldn’t say.

If you’ve read me before and if you read this blog in general, you might assume I’m about to rant about avoiding the N-word. Good guess, and not entirely off the mark, but that’s just an entry point.

The N-word is the “easy” thing to go off about—and I have already (last year, in the post “The N-Word and You”). If you want to get my detailed thoughts on that, read them there. But, in short, most people know better than to generally say the N-word. John Mulaney made a decent joke about it in this clip. But enough on that.

I want to talk about words. Plural. And it goes to the point about the N-word but also to other words and phrases and terms used against Black people. It goes to the power of language.

I’m progressive; I’m more leftist than I am liberal, probably—but I’m also Christian. And while the Bible has a lot to say about the tongue, my favorite is this: “Consider ships: They are so large that strong winds are needed to drive them. But pilots direct their ships wherever they want with a little rudder. In the same way, even though the tongue is a small part of the body, it boasts wildly. Think about this: A small flame can set a whole forest on fire. The tongue is a small flame of fire, a world of evil at work in us. It contaminates our entire lives.”

Short version: What we say matters, and even the shortest of statements can have the power to achieve great harm or set into motion terrible things. (And, of course, the corollary to the passage above is that words, obviously, also would have the power to do great good, but that’s not my point today.)

There are people in my life whom I love very much. They are strong, competent people. They have endured much and carry on. But I also know that for some of them, there are certain words—comments, phrases, accusations, admonitions, jibes, etc.—that can destroy them. That can take a mood from happy to devastated in an instant. That can make them cry and shut down. That can destroy trust between us.

To be honest, most of us are like this. Some of us have more triggers than others. Some of us are hurt more or less when our weak spots are located.

The old adage “Sticks and stones can break my bones but words will never hurt me” is a bald-faced lie. Words can hurt. That’s why abusive people use them more than they use physical violence. Because with the right words, said often enough, you can tear down a person’s entire sense of self-worth and dignity.

People who say things like “The N-word is just a word” are people who, almost 100% of the time, know very well the power of negative words and verbal assault. Who know that the N-word isn’t just a word.

And to quickly bring me to the racial and bigotry aspects of this—the way it serves white supremacy in particular; the meat-and-potato kind of topic here at BGIM Media—the words we use can be hurtful to Black people and other marginalized groups and can undermine solidarity even when we don’t think they are particularly bad words.

That’s why it’s so important to think about our language and not only what we say but also what we allow to be said by others without challenging those words. To think about how we frame and phrase things, too.

When a 20-something white suspect is called a “kid” or “youth” in news stories (and it happens) and a Black tween or teen suspect is called a “young man” or just a “man” (and it happens a lot) that has an impact on public perception of not just the crime but also how Black people are viewed more generally. When young Black girls are called “women” it means they get sexualized and abused/assaulted earlier than even white girls (who are sexualized all too young already).

When terms like “thug” are more often used for people of color than they are for white people (and they are), it means something. It shapes larger attitudes. It makes people who are not white a little less human in the public eye; it makes them seem more dangerous when that’s not the truth.

It isn’t just about slurs, you see. Yes, the slurs are hurtful and sometimes dehumanizing. But they aren’t the whole story. We need to watch our tongues. And we need to call to task those who misuse their tongues in this way.

Speak truth to power; speak with purpose and dignity. Don’t use words to tear down those who have done nothing to deserve the destruction they can inflict. [To find other installments of “Calling All White People,” click here]

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