I want you to close your eyes and imagine that your words are physical objects based on their properties. If they are words of kindness and consideration, what would they feel and look like? Soft and squishy? How would they change or effect the person you sling them towards? If they are harsh and cruel, how do they appear? Heavier, sharp? What kind of damage would they do when they made contact?
I was recently at a conference where the importance of language was discussed, and it was mentioned that we now know that words can affect a person’s DNA. I want that to fully sink in: what you say, how you say it, who you say it to, and how it is delivered, has the potential to alter someone on a level that creates cellular changes. At the conference, the presenter* discussed how certain words used in the context of describing specific populations should no longer be applicable: vulnerable, empower, under-served, and non-white. Take a moment, say each word out loud, and think about what you associate with it. Do you associate vulnerability with weakness, as many do? Who has the right to give or take away power? Why must ‘white’ be the core measure of description, and what does it say if it is?
As a writer, I like to think that I am conscious of language and choices around words, but when specific words are embedded in the net of a society, we don’t often stop to meditate on what we are using, the context in which they arrived, and why we say what we say. More important, we don’t frequently ask, ‘what is the longstanding effect that your words carry with the intense power they hold to alter gene expression,’ especially when ‘we’ are people who have the upper hand in the dynamics of existence.
The conference I was attending was referring more specifically to nomenclature around childbirth, and how varying populations are often labeled, yet simultaneously ignored. But while I was away, I had a fascinating text conversation with someone regarding my children, and the parallel between the two struck me deeply.
I always refer to my children as biracial, because according to society, that is the technical term we consistently use to describe children who have parents who have come from distinct ‘races’. Except, as my exquisite, lovely texting company challenged, what does it mean to people as biracial? If race itself doesn’t exist except as a social construct, which I am fully aware of, what is the purpose of such a term? And beyond that, why I am utilizing a word that continues to perpetuate separation and difference, and in the process, delivers inequity, based on something that is imaginary?
To say that something resonated for me would be an understatement, and in later reflection, along with just feeling icky for using a word that has the potential to create such unrecognized harm, I had to confront the amount of privilege I carry to use such words without thinking about them. And that I have taught them to my children, without putting in the mental and emotional work to determine the effect, hit me square in the heart.
My thoughtful texting companion asked me how my children knew they were African American, and the discussion veered in the direction of self-identity, which fascinates me. Even though my son sports my fairer skin and wider, more manageable curls, he solely identifies as African American. On the other hand, my daughter, with her richer tone and tighter, darker hair, verbalizes her identity as white and black. As a parent, I realized a long time ago that I wanted my children to decide who they are and how they want to be addressed. They each have their own distinct path in this world which will partly be shaped by how they choose to identify, and in reaction to the lens in which others see them. While I can offer what has created ‘me’, who they determine they want to be is (as it should be) solely up to them.
This now means, for me, altering the language I reference regarding how they journey through this world. If my son has determined he is African American, I can call him just that. It may confuse other people, but it’s not my place to take up their discomfort and soothe it. We all could do better if we sat in discomfiture and took the time to do the emotional and intellectual work required to be more unbiased, rather than just continue with what is easy and familiar. For my daughter, I feel ‘dual-identity’, since that is how she speaks to how she sees herself, could be appropriate, although I am waiting to have a conversation with her to get her input first about what language she prefers.
I ask that we all continue to reflect on the words we distribute, and that we attempt to do so with as much respect and love as we can with an eye to humanity as a collective. When people remind us, and challenge us, to do better, to reflect internally despite our own discomfort, show up and do the difficult work. Sit in dis-ease and consider how to change, and why it is important to do so. Recognize when you have done wrong, and apologize when appropriate for what you have been perpetuating. The only separation that stands in the way of understanding are our self-imposed barriers and prejudices to others. I would rather work toward a world where we strive for equity and egalitarianism, with language that reflects that consciousness, than simply preserve unnecessary difference. More so, I hope to eventually live in a world where I won’t have to explain my children’s identity at all, and they can just be.
*Natalie S. Burke was the conference presenter. Please check out her terrific work here.
Reflections of a woman spawned in a cement cocoon...