Educate, Engage, Activate

Language Matters

We at the Network maintain a keen awareness of the impact of language on our interpersonal relationships, our institutional policies and practices, and our culture. Language can be both a reflection of our beliefs and a powerful agent of change. Because of this, we are launching a Newsletter exploration around particular words and phrases. We are hoping to hear from you, our community, about Language Matters. What words or phrases would you like to see explored in this segment? Please email with your responses and suggestions.

  1. “Alien”: While originally simply a term for “foreigner,” we all recognize how the word became a demeaning way to refer to people who are in the US without legal status; they have been referred to as “illegal aliens,” or even more painfully, “illegals.” As reported in The Boston Globe (1/31/21), on his first day in office President Biden indicated his goal of replacing the word “alien” in immigration laws with “noncitizen.” There are some who argue that this type of fine-tuned focus on words is excessive and restricts speech. Yet, people across the political spectrum do recognize the power of words. As an example, under the previous administration, Citizenship and Immigration Services removed the phrase “nation of immigrants” from its mission statement. This erasure can be seen as a powerful, and egregious, attempt to use language to redefine our national identity and re-write history, particularly because we are a nation composed of immigrants and the descendants of immigrants, Indigenous people, and people who were enslaved and brought here under bondage.
  2. “Terrorism”: We are focusing on this word, primarily because of an interesting article by Rania Batrice in the Boston Globe (1/14/21) on how to describe the mob of people who attacked the Capital: “Call them white supremacists. Call them fascists and traitors. Don’t call them terrorists.”  The Capitol mob’s actions fit the FBI’s definition of terrorism, which includes “violent, criminal acts…committed…to further ideological goals stemming from domestic influences,” and, as a result, the nation was terrorized. However, the author argues that referring to the mob as ‘domestic terrorists’ reinforces and can serve to sustain the “legacy of racism.”  The term “terrorism” has been historically used to target Arab, Muslim and Black communities. The “War on Terror” launched in 2001 after 9/11 has led to infringements on civil liberties, through justification for racial profiling, privacy violations and the elimination of due process for these groups specifically.   By calling this angry mob terrorists, do we run the risk of validating the war on terrorism, knowing that war has had a differential impact on Black and Brown communities? What do you think about this perspective?
  3. “Homeless”: Watching the documentary Signs of Humanity inspired our focus on the word “homeless” in this week’s column. As explained by the nonprofit “The label of ‘homeless’ has derogatory connotations. It implies that one is ‘less than,’ and it undermines self-esteem and progressive change.” Artist/Activist Willie Baronet’s Signs of Humanity  challenges our assumptions about the concept of home. For over 20 years Baronet approached unhoused people who were holding signs asking for help, and offered to buy those signs for use in an art project. Baronet’s collection became the art project We Are All Homeless. This installation is coming to the First Congregational Church of Winchester in the fall of 2021. In conversations with the people whose signs he bought, Baronet often asked what “home” meant to them. Recurrent themes included: family, security, being protected, sleeping in a warm, dry place, feeling comfortable and cared for. These are the same words that were used to describe their experiences in the communities they reside in on the street. Though these people are unhoused, they continue to share food and resources and look out for one another. If ‘home’ to many people who live on the streets means caring about and being cared for by others, then ‘unhoused’ might be a more accurate descriptor of their living situation than ‘homeless.’
  4. “Hate Crime”: On March 16, after a gunman killed eight people in a string of Atlanta spa shootings, including six women of Asian descent, the head investigator, and subsequently members of the general public, took at face value the perpetrator’s denial that racism was a motive in the slayings. This denial led law enforcement and others to declare that these murders could not be classified as “hate crimes.” The FBI’s definition of a hate crime is: “criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity.” Thus, in the criminal justice system, the motivating hate needs to be explicit in the nature of the crime, or directly evident in the perpetrator’s state of mind. Legally, this creates barriers in establishing what constitutes a hate crime, which compounds under-reporting. Whether or not the attack meets the legal criteria of a “hate crime,” we at the NFSJ believe it is reasonable to assume that hate was a factor in the choices the perpetrator made. The decision not to prosecute the murders in Atlanta as “hate crimes” has led many in the country to deny the role that implicit bias and hatred may have played in these crimes. During this time when many in the Asian American Pacific Islanders (AAPI) community are feeling threatened and victimized by this and other attacks against their community, declaring that hate was not a factor in the Atlanta slayings serves to invalidate their feelings and has compounded their pain. 
  5. “Affordable Housing”: Historically, the term “affordable housing” has been used to describe federally-subsidized housing that costs no more than a set percentage of one’s income; this was originally set at 20% in the 1940’s, and is now at 30%. Over time, “affordable housing” has become associated with universal accessibility as well, which is a positive trend. However, the term has also acquired very negative connotations, primarily due to classism and the segregation of low-income people in large, poorly-maintained “projects.” Another difficulty with the phrase is what constitutes “affordable” under the law. For example, housing developments built under the Chapter 40B statute require 20-25% of units to be affordable. However, the criterion for affordability in Winchester is defined as households earning 80% of the Greater Boston Area Median Income (AMI). Using this standard, it would be affordable for single individuals earning $66,650 or a household of four earning $95,200. Clearly this is not what people typically think of when they describe housing as affordable. Rather than “affordable housing,” with its misperceptions and negative connotations, a better term going forward would be “mixed-income housing.” This housing could be designed for moderate and middle income people/families with eligible income levels between 30% to 90% of AMI, thus increasing diversity both in that development and in our community at large.
  6. “BIPOC”: Recently, the acronym BIPOC has gained traction as a way of referring to non-White people. It stands for “Black, Indigenous, and (other) People of Color.” The intent behind using BIPOC instead of POC (i.e. People of Color) is to recognize the shared history of resistance in the US—particularly those of Indigenous and Black communities—and to elevate the plight of Black and Indigenous communities who felt invisible under the catchall term POC.  However, the acronym is neither universally accepted nor embraced. One reason for this is that the order of the letters themselves denotes the importance of one group over another. As powerfully stated in Audre Lorde’s There is No Hierarchy of Oppression, “…I have learned that oppression and the intolerance of difference come in all shapes and sexes and colors and sexualities; and that among those of us who share the goals of liberation and a workable future for our children, there can be no hierarchies of oppression.” Another reason that some argue it is problematic is that BIPOC still obscures a focus on Latinx People of Color and Asian people. This is particularly important when addressing racism directed at specific communities, for example the spike in violence against people of Asian descent. Rather than using catchall terms, many antiracism activists and educators recommend naming the specific racial group being referenced, whenever possible. 
  7. “Enslaved”: The word “enslaved” is increasingly used in conversation and written publications to describe people living in bondage. Many of us may have noticed this, but we may not have recognized the significance of this change. An article in the Chicago Tribune in 2019 quotes essayist Katy Waldman: “The heightened delicacy of ‘enslaved person’ –the men and women it describes are humans first, commodities second—(does) important work: restoring identity, reversing a cascade of institutional denials and obliterations. To reduce the people involved to a nonhuman noun…reproduce(s) the violence of slavery on a linguistic level; to dispense with it amount(s) to a form of emancipation.” The article’s author, Eric Zorn, goes on to say “In many ways, then, the debate over “slave” is part of the larger debate over ‘people first’ language, a movement in which advocates ask us to use circumlocutions that stress the humanity of individuals rather than their characteristics.” A common example of this is “person with a disability” rather than “disabled person,” distinguishing the whole person from their disability. Writer Bridgette L. Hylton relates how she was bothered, growing up, by reading textbooks that referred to enslaved people “as ‘slaves’ and not as people who were held in bondage. The term “slave owners” reinforces the concept that enslaved men, women, and children were less than human and more like property or animals. She makes a strong case for the word change. “We can dignify and bolster the denied personhood of enslaved people by ceasing and desisting from referring to them in these old passive ways that forever tied them to their servitude and subtly absolve enslavers of their inhumanity,” she says. “We recognize how dangerous and insidious thoughtless words, when left unanalyzed, can be.” 
  8. “Criminal Legal System”: This edition of Language Matters was inspired by the Juneteenth Commemorative Panel Discussion, which the Network and Winchester Public Library cosponsored on June 17th. When talking about mass incarceration, all three panelists used the phrase “criminal legal system,” rather than criminal justice system. Given the inequities embedded in our legal system’s processes and outcomes, this choice to move away from using “criminal justice” seems like a correction that is long overdue. The panelists, who included Sean Ellis, Exoneree and Trustee of the New England Innocence Project, Donna Patalano, General Counsel for the Suffolk County DA’s Office, and Helina Fontes, the Program Director of the Northeast Recovery Learning Center, also discussed the impact of dehumanizing language. Helina Fontes noted that “We overlook just how powerful language is and the associations that are made in our mind in connection to the words that we hear.” Words like “perpetrator” or “suspect” do not invoke feelings of compassion or empathy, and can be used to define the totality of a person, as the “other.” Helina raised as an example the strength-based recovery approach used in the mental health system, where — for example — one would say “a person experiencing schizophrenia,” rather than “the schizophrenic,” or “a person with a substance use disorder,” rather than “the addict.” The care taken to avoid defining someone by one aspect of their experience or identity is important. Sean Ellis asked us to consider the differential impact in a courtroom if the judge were to use the person’s name when asking them to stand up, rather than saying “will the defendant please rise.” Attention to language needs to be seen as one part of the long-term process of humanizing and reforming the legal justice system. Can you think of other contexts where we need to be aware of language that defines someone by a single characteristic or identity?
  9. “Cultural Appreciation”: Cultural Appreciation or Appropriation? Indigenous Peoples’ Day is around the corner and soon after, Halloween. Maybe you don’t think of cultural appropriation when you see kids trick-or-treating in “Indian” costumes, but this is one example. Other egregious examples are dressing up as an ethnic stereotype —wearing blackface or using names and racist logos for sports teams— and so is using sacred artifacts or copies such as feather headdresses, as accessories. An article in The Week magazine (April 2021) notes that the Oxford Dictionary defines cultural appropriation as “the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society.” The article goes on to say that “The point is that the more marginalized group doesn’t get a say, while their heritage is deployed by someone in a position of greater privilege – for fun or fashion, perhaps, and out of a place of ignorance rather than knowledge of that culture.” It’s not appreciation to wear an accessory that is a religious symbol when you don’t practice that religion. Are you wondering about doing or wearing something, either for Halloween or another occasion, that might come under the “appropriation” heading? An article in Verywell Mind by Arlin Cuncic suggests asking yourself a range questions. Examples are: “Are you using a sacred item in a flippant or fun way (e.g., headdress)? How would people from the culture you are borrowing an item from feel about what you are doing? Are there any stereotypes involved in what you are doing?” The list goes on. The author notes that “Cultural appropriation is the social equivalent of plagiarism with an added dose of denigration. It’s something to be avoided at all costs, and something to educate yourself about”… especially when you make those inevitable mistakes…”Do what you can when you can, as you learn to do better.” In our attempts to learn and do better, we can also ask ourselves how we can respectfully appreciate another culture. We all grapple with this, and there are many grey areas. However, a good rule of thumb is to buy from local indigenous artists and craftspeople. This ensures that the jewelry and art we purchase contains cultural images that the artists feel comfortable, and proud, sharing.
  10. “Indigenous”: We are focusing on the term “indigenous” because Indigenous People’s Day recently passed and November is Native American Heritage Month. Additionally, with Thanksgiving approaching, it is important to address this term. While the term indigenous itself has a relatively straightforward definition of “coming from a particular place and having lived there for a long time before other people came there” (Oxford Dictionary), there are often misconceptions and confusion around surrounding topics. First, there is the misconception and misunderstanding around the “First Thanksgiving.” As children, many of us have been told that the First Thanksgiving was a peaceful and friendly meal between European settlers and the Native Americans. In reality, little of this story is true and the true story has been covered up over the years due to the bad image that it painted of the European settlers. In addition to misconceptions surrounding the term indigenous, there is also often confusion around what term should be used when addressing a person descended from the first people who lived here. For example, in referring to a group, many people use terms such as “Indian” or “American Indian.” Others feel more appropriate and acceptable terms are Native American, “First Nation,” and/or Indigenous American. However, the term that you can use to address a particular person depends on the person; in fact, many prefer to use their tribal affiliation.
  11. “Caucasity”: The word ‘Caucacity,’ being a slang term, is not found in most dictionaries. It is a blend of the words “Caucasian,” referring to White people, and “audacity,” or boldness. The literal definition is the boldness of White people. However, it is used to call out behaviors perceived to be stereotypically White or what is seen to be a particularly bold instance of White privilege or racism. In other words, the audacity comes from years of privilege and due to being on a higher perch, on both the social and economic order as a result of that privilege. Caucacity manifests itself in many ways – from cultural appropriation to lack of understanding of minority groups and to outright racism – both blatant and subtle. The actions do not even have to be racist, as in the case of the college admissions scandal. This was an instance of caucasity where the perpetrators had both a blatant disregard for the law and a sense of entitlement. Even their apologies, on being exposed, came across as perfunctory, seeking to minimize the legal consequences, rather than from feeling any sense of morality. Caucasity is evident when White people take risks, out of a feeling of entitlement and safety, without realizing that their behavior is the result of their privilege. It takes the form of microaggressions, cultural appropriation, racist jokes, and the denial of privilege. When a White person speaks over or ignores people of color in a group discussion, they are demonstrating caucasity. The good news is that there is more awareness of this behavior, particularly in younger generations, many times by the perpetrators themselves. This is leading to more self-awareness, a necessary first step. There is still a long way to go but the best way to get rid of a social ill is for people to realize that such behavior exists and that it is a problem. Only then can it be corrected and said individual and society, as a whole, can move forward.
  12. “Black and White”: In offering a series on Language Matters, we hope to provoke reflection on how language both reflects and impacts cultural values and norms. Consider the words “white” and “black.” We have many examples of how “white” connotes goodness and purity: white knight; white wedding dress; white lies. We have even more examples of “black” connoting something bad or even evil: black sheep; blackballed; pot calling the kettle black; blacklisted; blackmail; black mark. We know there are examples of the opposite, particularly for the word black, e.g. in the black, black gold, black belt, black tie (with the white-clad Imperial Stormtroopers in Star Wars being the most notable exception for the color white!). However, it is common belief that “black” indicates bad or immoral, while white has become a metaphor for good or moral. The connotations of “white” and “black” most likely derive from the importance of our ability to see in light, and the resulting feeling that darkness, the black of night, is less safe. The origin of the connotations was not skin color or racist notions of white supremacy. However, the use of this language that is embedded with these meanings for the colors that are also used to describe skin color, could inadvertently support the application of these beliefs to people, and thus reinforce systemic racism. And, as noted in a blog from the Cambridge Dictionary, “idioms that didn’t originally have anything to do with perceived race feel, to many people, as though they do… So it really doesn’t matter where an idiom came from: what matters is how it makes our fellow humans feel when they hear it. It is perfectly possible to find other words and phrases to express our ideas so that we avoid offending people. The language is rich enough.” We can wonder if it would be possible to shift these meanings, over time. “What if we wrote that something was as pure as the blackest eyes; as rich as the darkest hair; or as sophisticated as a black dress?…What if, as Muhammad Ali pointed out in a 1971 interview, we had vanilla devil’s food cake and dark-chocolate angel cake?” (Aradhna Krishna, The Conversation, 7/6/20). Cultural norms and practices do change; perhaps we can choose to be active in promoting this change. How do you feel as you reflect on the connotations of “black” and “white,” how the words are used, and whether this can be changed?
  13. Person-first language (PFL) and Identity-first language (IFL)”: In this edition of Language Matters we are delving into language around disabilities and addressing a common question: Do I refer to someone as a “disabled person” or as “a person with a disability?” In her book Demystifying Disability, disability rights advocate, speaker and writer Emily Ladau indicates both phrases can be used because they honor two of the main ways of referring to disability: person-first language (PFL) and identity-first language (IFL). Since language does matter, the following is an excerpt from Demystifying Disability in Ladau’s own words. Person-first language (PFL) does just what it says: it puts the word “person” first, before any reference to disability is made. This type of language is all about acknowledging that human beings who have disabilities are, in fact, people first, and they’re seen not just for their disability. So, when using PF, you might say “person with a disability” or “person who has Down Syndrome” or “people who use wheelchairs.” The logic here is that disability is something a person has, rather than who they are, so by separating any mention of disability from the person and putting it second, you’re showing that you respect the personhood of someone with a disability. Identify-first language (IFL) is all about acknowledging disability as part of what makes a person who they are. So when using IFL you might say “disabled person” or “blind person” or “autistic people.” In this case, disability isn’t just a description or diagnosis; it’s an identity that connects people to a community, a culture, and a history.  Marianne DiBlasi, a Winchester resident and former Network Board member who was born with a physical disability, agrees that using either PFL or IFL is correct, though some people prefer one over the other. She acknowledges it can be confusing to know which to use. DiBlasi offers these suggestions: either ask the person directly or listen for the language they’re using. Most importantly, though, don’t let your fear of doing or saying something “wrong” prevent you from getting to know a person with a disability. If you use someone’s non-preferred language and receive a negative response, you can simply say something like “I apologize. What terminology do you prefer?” and then use it going forward. DiBlasi expressed appreciation for Demystifying Disability as a rich resource—an easy and thought-provoking read. 
  14. “Gender Pronouns:” In recognition of Pride Month, this Language Matters column focuses on the importance of using accurate pronouns when referring to transgender and non-binary people and the reasons for everyone who’s comfortable doing so to share their pronouns in meetings and introductions. The Trevor Project reports that 25% of LGBTQ youth use “they/them exclusively, a combination of he/him, she/her, or they/them, or neopronouns, such as ze/zir,” a singular pronoun some people use instead of they. For transgender and nonbinary people, being referred to by an incorrect pronoun is experienced as a hurtful denial of who they are. It’s widely acknowledged that gender-expansive youth can suffer from extreme stress and mental health challenges. Supportive community members can make a difference. Research by the online platform Community Commons indicates that trans and/or nonbinary youth who reported that their pronouns were respected “by all or most of the people in their lives” were half as likely to have attempted suicide. As you may be aware, many people, including cisgender people (those whose gender identity matches their assigned gender at birth) are now more frequently explicitly stating their pronouns. One author, who identifies as nonbinary, declared in a blog post: “Dear cis people who put your pronouns on your ‘hello my name is’ name tags: Thank you.” The author went on to say they feel more comfortable, and feel warmer toward the person. And reported that when they hear themselves referred to as ‘they,’ they “feel vulnerable, and cared for, and seen”(Sinclair Sexsmith, 2019). In addition to nametags, we can all identify our pronouns in Zoom meetings, when being introduced to a group, in our email signatures, on business cards, and social media bios/profiles. We can encourage others to do the same, if they feel comfortable. Using accurate pronouns and normalizing sharing one’s own pronouns creates a more inclusive and equitable environment, promotes the health and wellbeing of LGBTQ youth, and demonstrates respect for people of all gender identities.
  15. “Allyship:”

This edition of Language Matters offers an exploration of what it means to be an ally. When one discusses any type of social justice, allyship is a term that frequently comes up. But what does that word really mean beyond the obvious, which is about being an effective ally? On its website, the Anti-Oppression Network defines allyship as “an active, consistent, and arduous practice of unlearning and re-evaluating, in which a person in a position of privilege and power seeks to operate in solidarity with a marginalized group.” Yet another definition comes from Sam White, social impact strategist/advocate, in a conversation with Schuyler Bailar, a Division 1 athlete, activist, and life coach. Sam posits that “on a basic level, Allyship is living your belief that the struggles of other people matter just as much as if they are happening to you.” It means using your resources to take action to back up your beliefs. Adds Schuyler, “Allyship is about action or activeness. There is no such thing as an innocent bystander.” The common thread in these definitions is action.

There is no allyship without doing something for the marginalized group, and beyond the action, allyship encompasses listening, learning, and incorporating. In inculcating this process, it is expected that mistakes may be made by the privileged group. What is important is that one learn from their mistakes and move forward. While learning to become knowledgeable about a certain topic is important, even more crucial is learning about oneself and one’s identity. For instance, if you are a white person, it is important to learn about white privilege and how it operates in our society. You can then take that knowledge and use it to help people. However, without that knowledge, you will not be in a position to be effective.

Like every skill, allyship has to be learned. It is a lifelong process of building relationships based on trust, consistency, and accountability with marginalized individuals or groups. The work that you do must be recognized by those with whom you are seeking to ally.

In the spring, NFSJ interns conducted a series of five weekly workshops for Middle and High School students on this very topic. The goal was to train people on some of the concepts of allyship and thereby help them become better allies. The material covered in the workshops included:

  • How to cultivate an allyship mindset both within and without.
  • How allyship is closely aligned with one’s identity.
  • The importance of listening and keeping an open mind, and willingness to accept mistakes and learn from them.
  • Examples of real-life allyship and how it is closely related to social justice.

Each week, a different intern or set of interns explained the above topics and later led the students as they practiced the newly acquired skills. A true ally must regularly listen to those around them, adapt their thinking, rework what they believe to be correct, and become comfortable with being uncomfortable. However, the end results justify the effort as it builds trust between the privileged and the marginalized, thereby providing the foundation for effective, long-term outcomes.

16. Critical Race Theory: This column explores Critical Race Theory, to provide a brief look at the origin and meaning of the phrase, and to highlight an example of how language can be re-defined and repurposed for political reasons.  

Critical Race Theory (CRT) was developed by Harvard Law School Professor Derrick Albert Bell Jr. in the 1970’s and, on its most basic level, posits that racism is systemically rooted in the institutions of society. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s definition states that “Critical Race Theory recognizes that racism is more than the result of individual bias and prejudice. It is embedded in laws, politics and institutions that uphold and reproduce racial inequalities.”

A topic that is often looked at through a Critical Race Theory framework is the study of this country’s criminal justice system and the War on Drugs. As a result of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 Black people were not only more likely to be convicted for drug use but also face harsher sentencing than white people. In examining this racist disparity, CRT would have us look at the laws, precedents and norms within the criminal justice system, instead of explaining it on a case by case and person by person basis.

The current debate in the media around Critical Race Theory centers around the efforts to redefine the term, rather than the content of the theory itself.  Socially conservative politicians and media are defining CRT as an attack on white people and an unpatriotic attempt to revise American history. As a result, the theory has become a stand-in not only for anti-racist work, but also almost anything related to how equity or social justice is introduced or taught in schools. The battle over Critical Race Theory, or what CRT represents, has had real consequences in schools across America. Since 2021, 44 states and many municipalities have taken steps that would restrict how teachers can discuss issues such as racism, sexism, and gender identity and many states have followed through on these steps. 

The debate over CRT is much more than a debate over what was a relatively unknown academic and legal framework prior to 2020. It represents a debate about how we conceptualize and teach history, and how we understand current racial and class differences. 

17. “Asian-American:”

In recognition of May as Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islanders Heritage Month, this Language Matters column will shed light on the history and current use of the descriptor “Asian American.”

The phrase was first publicly coined in 1968, by Yuji Ichioka and Emma Gee, two University of California, Berkeley graduate students whose goal was to increase political effectiveness by creating a united pan-Asian group of activists (Anna Purna Kambhampaty, Time, 5/22/20).

Very often today, the phrase is taken out of that political context and is used to describe an extremely diverse group of people, consisting of about fifty ethnic groups, with about 100 languages (Li Zhou, Vox, 5/5/21). Because of this complex and rich diversity, many feel that “Asian American” is far too broad of a term to use. And, since most people think of East Asia when they hear “Asian American,” it is argued that Southeast Asians and South Asians are not recognized or considered in the conversation. The importance of having recognition was underscored when in 2021 the name of this month was changed to explicitly include Native Hawaiian peoples.

While the phrase “Asian American” can still serve an important political purpose to address issues of racism and the need for advocacy, the term is generally not used by Asian people in a personal context. Two different surveys have revealed that only 19% (AAPI Data, 4/8/22) or 28% (Pew Research Center, 2023) identify as Asian American and/or Asian; they are more likely to identify with their specific ethnic group or their or their family’s country of origin. Asian Americans are a diverse group geographically and ethnically, and they are also very diverse with respect to how long they have lived in the United States – from recent arrivals to people whose ancestors arrived almost two hundred years ago.

As a “Language Matter,” it is important to honor how people choose to identify themselves. When you need to use a descriptor, try whenever possible to describe someone in the term(s) of their choice. And, in general, however good the intention is, when we describe a person in broad brush strokes we risk losing their uniqueness in the stereotype.

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