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.

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Since its inception, the Network has been profoundly inspired by the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr and sought to thoughtfully engage the community in honoring all that he stood for. For the past three years, this has taken the form of the MLK Day of Service, the last two of which have been held virtually.
Make a donation to the NFSJ today to fund these accessible and creative community-wide celebrations and similar programs to advance an inclusive and anti-racist community in Winchester!

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