"Somebody told a lie one day. They couched it in language. They made everything black ugly and evil. Look in your dictionary and see the synonyms for Black. It's always something degrading, low and sinister.
Look at the word white. It's always something pure, high, and clean.
Well I want to get the language right tonight."
- Martin Luther King Jr.
As someone who goes hard for language and liberation, my practice of decolonization is rooted in examinations of language and expression. I want to think of more ways I can affirm the multiplicity of our identities across ability, gender, race and sexual expression.
I want to recognize that there is some privilege in that; to have the time to reflect and consider the nuances of language (sometimes people who have experienced particular kinds of education can police others who haven't and that isn't fair) - but I also think that it is not an option and at minimum we have to treat others the ways that they wanted to be treated and the best ways of doing that is to ask.
Ask someone what gender pronoun they go by, ask someone how they describe themselves and just like with someone's name - when you forget, ask again. Take time, have more conversation than less, write down things that you might need to remember. In any process of education, learning isn't immediate; it takes time and various different approaches to integrate it into our brains.
I want to remind us all that this process of unlearning language and culture that has been and is being used to limit, erase or violate each other and learning new terms that people have forged in direct response to the violence that they have experienced should be joyous. We are learning new ways to affirm and celebrate each other. We are creating more space for individuals to name themselves, we are creating bonds of solidarity, we are resisting a society that tells us our directives must come from 'above', from 'far away' or because that is what 'they' say, when in fact language and culture is created now, here and in our hands.
And so I wanted to give some examples of words that get used in common language that hurt, words that I encourage us all to invent multiple other inventions of words that actually mean what we want them to mean.
TW* I am going to name some terms that use other's identities/experiences as insults. They are violent and I thought about blocking out part of the terms, but I wanted to be explicit in naming them in case people weren't clear about the exact term. To be clear, some people love some of these terms. For some they love it all the time, for others they like it some of the time or when some people do it, but to be sure you should ask.
For some people, you might think that this excessive, not important, too politically correct and that is great - for you. For some of us this language hurts and even if we are in the minority, no one (especially not the 'majority') should get to make decisions for us about what we should be called. You can have people call you whatever you like and us sensitive ones, we need to free to do the same. And so what if we are sensitive? Why is that a bad thing? I am happy to be sensitive and I need people to respect it.
Also another note, any group that has been victimized or attacked by a particular language can feel free to reclaim it, i.e. First Nations people take the liberty to call themselves 'Indians' if they so choose, womyn can call themselves 'Bitches' if we so choose.
tranny, she male, and transvestite: Don't ever call anyone these things. Ever. Avoid phrases like 'the opposite sex' or using terms like 'ladies & gentlemen', 'boys and girls', not everyone identifies with one of these terms. There are many genders and no gender is the 'opposite' or another. Avoid phrases like 'real women' and 'real men' and while you are at it, lose terms like 'biological' anything.
gyp: this term associates gypsies with stealing. no.
indian giver: this term is meant to refer to when someone takes back a gift that they gave. considering the history of colonization where land was stolen from First Nations people and the continuing genocide, i hope it is self-evident why this is profoundly racist.
ghetto: ghetto is often used to describe that something is broken, dirty, crappy. As someone who grew up in cash poor neighborhoods, although we may not have had a lot, our ish was always spotless and well kept. This sweeping generalization conflates an absence of money with the presence of filth.
retarded, dumb, crazy, insane: they’re so many terms that conflate disabilty with lacking intelligence or being horrible, these are only a few.
rape, butt-hurt: there is nothing like rape. the phone company didn't rape you, the music that you are listening to, the government - nothing is like being raped. Stop using it as a metaphor, it is triggering and erasing.
mutt, mulatto, mixed breed: people of mixed race have so many ways of describing themselves, please give the space to tell you what feels good.
These are only a few, but I urge us all to be careful when we speak and as well with what our intentions are. There is nothing wrong with having to think a little longer before you say something, for all of us; it is probably a good thing.
A characteristic across all systems of advantage, the definition of the identities of marginalized people as inherently invaluable.
It manifests itself in literally and more explicit ways, but also in seemingly subtle ways.
The following are synonyms for black:
dingy, filthy, foul, grimy, grubby, impure, nasty, soiled, sooty, spotted, squalid, stained, unclean, uncleanly, enraged, fierce, furious, hostile, menacing, resentful, sour, sullen, threatening
Synonyms for white:
apple-pie order, blank, bright, cleansed, clear, delicate, dirtless, elegant, faultless, flawless, fresh, graceful, hygienic, immaculate, laundered, neat, neat as a button, neat as a pin, orderly, pure, sanitary, shining, simple, snowy, sparkling, speckless, spic and span, spotless, squeaky, stainless, taintless, tidy, trim, unblemished, unpolluted, unsmudged, unsoiled, unspotted, unstained, unsullied, untarnished, vanilla, washed, well-kept, white
Black used to refer to life, the colour of soil and white referred to death as the colour of bones. There are still remnants of that when you check out the synonyms, but Blackness is defined solely in this way and denied the multiplicity of definitions.
Here are the synonyms of feminine:
Very different from the synoymyms of masculine:
audacious, beefcake, bold, brave, colt, confident, daring, dauntless, dignified, fearless, firm, gallant, hardy, he-man, heroic, hunk, intrepid, jock, jockstrap, lion-hearted, macho, male, manlike, mannish, masculine , muscular, noble, powerful, red-blooded, resolute, robust, self-reliant, stately, staunch, stout-hearted, strapping, strong, stud*, tiger, two-fisted, undaunted, valiant, valorous, vigorous, virile, well-built
A kind of double speak is required to maintain these definitions. Womyn are described as weak despite enduring significantly more violence and greater economic disadvantage in relation to men. People of colour and cash poor people are often described as lazy despite the fact that they occupy the most labour intensive positions across the entire world.
We have to consider the effects of what it means to literally construct someone's identity in direct opposition to another and the ways it limits the 'identities restricted to the middle'.
As Audre Lorde so aptly describes, “It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.” We can collaborate to transform and deconstruct the conditions that limit our expression and safety. We can do so with the enormous creative capacity found in our mouth, hands and hearts.