As a professional writer, I’ve been thinking a lot about how we use our words in this world. The language we use is not only essential for the way we connect with others, but for how we tell stories or get our news, how we write policies and laws and procedures, how we use words to spread love or hate, and how we use our words to make a difference and change.
I regularly study trends in language, content, audiences, and the way those audiences perceive types of content. Something that’s popular in today’s current technological climate is micro content.
Micro content is short, concise information that can stand alone and is easily consumable by an audience. Basically, people want to read something quick—something bite-sized and easy to digest. But the issues and injustices that we’re seeing now are not, and should not be presented as, easy to digest.
More importantly, the language used to describe what’s going on (what we post online, news articles, etc.) and how we will move forward (bills, reforms, laws, policies, etc.) should be precise and intentional.
With the way information is presented to audiences now—on platforms like Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook—the way language is used can have a huge impact on the way that information is perceived and understood.
Language is one of the most subliminal—and damaging—intricacies in the way we relate, and carelessness in communication contributes to racist systems every day and has been for a long time.
Language in the past
Along with large chunks of Black history being left out of our textbooks, the language used to describe history is often watered down or glazed over into something to make everyone a little more comfortable. But comfort is the enemy of progress.
While language and the power of words often unite us as a country, there is a long history of it tearing us apart as well—from the U.S. Constitution to hateful comments and the spread of false information on social media platforms.
The Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution of 1865 abolished slavery throughout the United States and ended involuntary servitude except as a punishment for conviction of crime.
The Thirteenth Amendment is often praised as a great milestone and celebration as the end all of slavery. But with that one clause, it becomes a tool embedded into the structure of our country.
Throughout history, Black people have repeatedly been controlled through racial and social systems that appear to die, but are then reborn into new forms tailored for the times.
It seems that we haven’t really ended racial disparities and inequalities; we’ve simply redesigned them by changing the language used to reinforce them.
On a smaller scale…
On a much smaller scale, think about word association used in our everyday lives. For example, what color do you think of when you hear the word ‘nude’? If it looks like a white person’s skin tone, that’s your privilege or the underlying tones of privilege in mainstream media.
Because in reality, ‘nude’ is not synonymous with lighter skin tones. By definition, nude just means naked. Naked is natural. Naked comes in every skin tone.
It can be daunting right now to think at such a small scale. It may even feel unimportant in the scheme of things. Many of us are scrambling right now. We are burnt out—from the tragedy we keep seeing in the news and on our feeds, from trying to educate ourselves and others, from the shame we feel for not realizing how broken our world has been—all in the midst of a pandemic.
Many of us are unsure of where to even begin as we head towards change that is made to last beyond a social media movement or a hashtag.
The problems and issues we are seeing today weren’t just born out of George Floyd’s murder. The world is not erupting in protest because of a ‘few’ Black lives.
Black people and their allies are using their voices because they are tired of not only being silenced, but because they are tired of Black people being killed and beaten and unfairly treated and locked away for simply existing.
So, what can we do? How do we change the language and ideals so deeply embedded into our country and culture?
I challenge you to be thoughtful and intentional with the words you put out into the world. Take inventory of those words. Examine them and their roots—why do we choose the words we do for certain situations and groups of people and associations? Educate yourself when you feel you do not have all the answers.
Notice those words in the books you read and the movies you watch. Take note of the way your friends and family use their words, and don’t be afraid to correct them or stand against them. Pay attention to the wording in the laws you are voting on and the speeches of our presidential candidates.
And then ask yourself, how can we make better choices with our words to create better actions, to create a better world not just for you, but for everyone, even the people who don’t look like you. Because all lives don’t matter until Black ones do, too.