In my first ethics class with Dr. Katie Cannon, we were given the following paragraph, with the instructions that we we should try to re-write it, eliminating at least 30 uses of racist and negative language. This paragraph was written by a former classmate of Dr. Cannon’s, Robert B. Moore, as a way of pointing out the embedded racism in the English language.
Some may blackly accuse me of trying to blacken the English language, to give it a black eye by writing such words. They may denigrate me by accusing me of being black hearted, of having a black outlook on life, of being a black guard – which would certainly be a black mark against me. Some may black brow me and hope that a black cat crosses in front of me because of this black deed. I may become a black sheep, who will be blackballed by being placed on a blacklist in an attempt to blackmail me to retract my words. But attempts to blackjack me will have a Chinaman’s chance of success, for I am not a yell0w-bellied Indian-giver of words, who will whitewash a black lie. I challenge the purity and innocence of the English language. I don’t see things in black and white terms, for I am a white man if there ever was one. However, it would be a black day when I would not “call a spade a spade,” even though some will suggest a white man calling the English language racist is like the pot calling the kettle black. While many will be niggardly in their support, others will be honest and decent, and to them I say, that’s very white of you.”
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the ways in which our values are embedded within our language, and about how those values are carried out in the world. Simply put: words matter. I may think I’m not saying much by implying that someone is the “black sheep” of their family, or that something is “black as sin” instead of “pure white,” while waiting for my “white knight” – but, I am. Embedded in that language is the assumption that black = bad; and, conversely, white = good. It’s so simple and so ingrained that we don’t even think about it, which is part of what makes it so dangerous. Words matter.
Stop. Think before you speak. Think about what you may be implying in your speech. Not just what’s on the surface, but what’s underneath.