The Power In Your Words
by Contessa Kellogg-Winters
by Contessa Kellogg-Winters
Every language has a history, and the origins of our words and phrases are coded due to those histories. Many of the words we use everyday perpetuate racist stereotypes and inequality, and the repetition of those words and their associations can further embed prejudices. As we work together to create a more equitable and inclusive society, we should consider whether the words we use help us in that goal.
Below, I’ve compiled a list of words I hope to see retired or used with greater care. I write this to raise awareness across the board, but also with an explicit invitation to communicators to change how we think about the words we use. We have a responsibility to recognize and understand the intolerant subtext and negativity of some of the most common aspects of our language. While I do not necessarily believe in policing word use, I hope we will take positive action to use words and phrases that give all people agency, support equality, and encourage better communication and understanding.
Blacklist/Blackball/Black Sheep/Black Mark: The use of black as shorthand for things that are bad, wrong, restricted, or undesirable is insidious. That the most common aspect of organizing headings for things people should be warned about is the opposite of white impacts the way blackness is understood in an elemental way.
Sell Down the River: This is currently used to describe an act of betrayal, but enslaved persons understood the literal meaning of this term. It originates from the practice of slave owners from northern states selling people to plantations in the south. This practice was essentially a death sentence because of the brutality of the slave trade in cotton-producing states.
Uppity: Throughout President Obama’s administration, this term was used against him. I fear that with the election of our first Black, female vice president, it will make a comeback. Uppity is the go-to descriptor used in certain quarters for black people that, according to their detractors, think a little too much of themselves or who were insufficiently deferential to whites. It’s generally an attempt to insult educated Blacks.
Buffoon: When used in reference to black people, the racist overtones of the word are unmistakable. It evokes minstrel shows—the clownish caricatures black entertainers were forced to adopt to make a living entertaining white audiences. It also plays on the blackface tradition, where white entertainers painted their faces dark, drew on exaggerated lips, and made an ignorant pretense of blackness.
Articulate: This one can be difficult to explain because many consider this a compliment. But if you’re looking for proof of its inherent racism, consider when that compliment was last applied to a white person. The casual racism of pointing out how well-spoken a Black person makes it clear that our society expects a person of color to be less competent and educated than others. Those expectations are deeply rooted in the stereotypes that Black people are less intelligent. You may recall this is the very thing that landed former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in trouble when speaking of Barack Obama’s candidacy.
Rioter: Why were the huge number of primarily peaceful social justice demonstrations over the summer described as riots, while the actions taken by those who stormed the United States Capitol in January were labeled as demonstrations? If you’ve read this far you know the answer. If a protest threatens the power structure and features people of color, it will be labeled a riot, the group will be called a mob, and participants will be called thugs.
Riot has strong racist overtones because of how it’s used and to whom the term is applied. When you call a demonstration a riot you undercut the reason for the protest. It also allows those who oppose civil rights reforms to create an atmosphere of fear and division.
Interested in learning how Clyde Group can help you and your organization? Send us a message through the contact form below and we’ll be in touch!