Given that today is a day to celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and all that he worked for, I decided to spend some time reflecting on racism, and racist language specifically. As human beings, we often fear that which is different from us, even when those differences are only skin deep. Granted, there are always going to be cultural differences between races, often stemming from socioeconomic factors that are influenced by racism in society, but today we must remember that we are all human beings. As members of the human race, we have more in common biologically than not, and we can no longer afford the delusion that one group of humans are superior to another. It’s too dangerous, too divisive.
Now, that being said, one tool used by people who wish to perpetuate racism is language. We’ve all heard racial slurs, some of which are so pervasive in our culture that I hardly need to list them here. Now, those words have the power to inflict damage on those for whom they are intended for one important reason. As a society, we agree that they have power. Our belief in their power to wound is precisely what gives them that ability. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to diminish the pain inflicted by saying this. As a child who was frequently bullied, I know how much words can hurt. I merely think it’s an important point to understand. If we do, and someone tries to diminish us by slinging hurtful words at us, we can take the power back by refusing to let those words hinder or define us. Easier said than done, I know, but it’s a step.
However, much of the burden should also fall upon the aggressors. People can feel the intention behind words. When an aggressor says a hurtful word with undisguised hurt, it can be terribly difficult to shake that off. I don’t want people who hurl racial slurs, or other types of hurtful words, to use the excuse “It’s their fault, they’re the ones who chose to be hurt by what I said.” Yes, we give permission to others to hurt us, but that should not be taken as license to say whatever you want whenever you want to say it. In America we have freedom of speech, and believe me, I’m forever grateful for that. However, freedom does not mean freedom from responsibility. Words have great transformative power, and as such, we have a responsibility for the impact of our words. When we speak, we should speak carefully. We should keep the well-being of others in mind. Civility is the key to making life better for all of us.
Racist language is a problem for everyone, because whether you use it or not, it’s a part of your world. If you’re not actively fighting to change it and the impact it has, you’re allowing it to continue through passive acceptance. That doesn’t make you bad, but it does make you responsible.