How Powerful are Our Words?

Have you ever heard words leave you lips and then think: Why did I say that? I hope you say yes, because then I have a thinking reader here. Those moments seem to come most often during heated conversations with loved ones, friends, or maybe co-workers.

I like to think I am pretty self-aware; but my interest in The Words Matter Moment, and how people use language, has been heightened in recent years because of my volunteer work. The people I get to interact with like to read, grow, think. If we nurture self-awareness, and care about the people around us, we work on our behaviors and choose our words with care.

This message became quite clear last summer when I participated in Wingman training. The Wingman program was developed by Ian Hockley whose son Dylan died in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. The goal of the program is to have students become a wingman for others.

During a discussion one day, someone innocently said something about a bullet point on a list the group had generated. As an aside, the word bullet originally meant small ball. Hence the little black dot which denotes a bullet point. But the words took on a different meaning in the training. Suddenly, using the term bullet point evoked sadness. And our trainers stopped to talk with us about the power of words. They asked us not to use the term while training, nor when we eventually went to work with students. Some might find this a trivial matter, but in the context of our training, that moment had power; it made me think.

Fast forward to right now; this moment where the needs of our nation have been described so eloquently by others. And two of those others include Dr. Ibram Kendi and author Jason Reynolds. I am a newcomer to Dr. Kendi’s work; Jason Reynolds won my respect and following with his book: As Brave as You.

In 2010, Dr. Kendi wrote the award-winning book: Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. And apparently after much encouragement, Dr. Kendi got Jason Reynolds to adapt the book for young people. It is that collaborative book I started reading this morning; one, because I love the way Jason Reynolds writes, and two because given the opportunity to volunteer, it’s always with kids. I like to see the world through their eyes. I truly believe in intergenerational learning.

In preparation, I watched a CBS News Morning interview with Dr. Kendi and Mr. Reynolds.

During the interview Mr. Reynolds noted:

I don’t think we give enough credence to the power of language and how language actually works when it comes to informing culture.

CBS Morning News March 10, 2020

So, so true. Have your Chinese born daughter come and ask why the Chinese are called yellow. Do I look yellow Mom?

if you don’t think words have power; read more often. When I opened the YA version of Stamped, I hardly expected to have my own life and words change dramatically. Dr. Kendi wrote the introduction to what he and Mr. Reynolds call a remix of the adult book; here’s the crux of the discussion.

A racist idea is any idea that suggests something is wrong or right, superior or inferior, better or worse about a racial group. An antiracist idea is any idea that suggests racial groups are equals.

Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You, Introduction

Exactly. That was the point of my own piece: to judge people not on color, but on behavior. We’re all human; we all bring something to the table. The tendency to hate is available to every human. It’s how we nurture the innate hate seed that matters. Now, I have a new working definition of a new word: antiracist.

Dr. Kendi put it this way:

There are lazy, hardworking, wise, unwise, harmless, and harmful individuals of every race, but no racial group is better or worse than another racial group in any way.

Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You, p.xv

And that observation alone goes right back to what Aristotle (the man now too often called a Dead White Guy) taught us about the composition and division fallacies.

The composition fallacy looks like this:

Inferring that something is true of the whole from the fact that it is true of some part of the whole. Accessed June 5, 2020

The fallacy of division is the reverse:

Inferring that something is true of one or more of the parts from the fact that it is true of the whole. Accessed June 5, 2020

So let’s use grapes for an illustration. If you have a bunch of grapes that look magnificent, you buy them concluding every grape in that bunch is going to be tasty and sweet. That’s a composition fallacy. The whole looks scrumptious, therefore every individual grape will be scrumptious, until you find the rotten one in the bunch.

On the other hand, if you’re one of those people who feels as though you can pluck a grape and pop it in your mouth while you’re shopping, if you get a sour grape from a bunch, you would conclude the whole bunch is bad under the fallacy of division.

Same concept with racism; and racism can exist within cultures. My Chinese-born, American daughter gets put down and dismissed quite often by those who also immigrated from China and Taiwan because she doesn’t speak Chinese. I have seen new immigrants from Africa distancing themselves from native-born Black Americans. And those observations underlie the definitions of the three types of people Dr. Kendi identifies by their views on race: Segregationists, Assimilationists and Antiracists.

He writes:

The antiracists say there is nothing wrong or right about Black people and everything is wrong with racism . . . The antiracists try to transform racism. The assimilationists try to transform Black people. The segregationists try to get away from Black people.

Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You, p. xiii

To me, these terms and their respective definitions are universal. Try this. Substitute LGBT for Black. What do you get?

The antiracists say there is nothing wrong or right about LGBT people and everything is wrong with homophobia . . . The antiracists try to transform homophobic attitudes. Assimilationists try to transform LGBT people. Segregationists try to get away from LGBT people. Substitute Chinese, Haitian, Indian, White. Hating others comes in many colors.

So sixteen pages into Stamped and I have been changed. I love the concept of antiracist, the definition and the goal. Words do matter. How we treat one another matters. I can’t wait to delve in to the next chapters written by Jason Reynolds.

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