The Power of Words: Why We Should Watch What We Say

The Power of Words: Why We Should Watch What We Say

Trigger warning: hate speech, rape

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” It’s a phrase frequently heard when we’re kids, something that sounds really catchy and helps us shrug off mean words that may be carelessly hurled at us.

In a perfect world, this saying would ring true, and words would not, in fact, have the power to hurt us. But if you’ve ever been called a “bitch” or a “slut” or something much more vicious, then you know it’s just not true. Words do hurt. Sometimes more than sticks and stones.

As a writer, I think language is among one of the most powerful tools at our disposal. When used correctly, words strung seamlessly together can transport you away into a far off land where you find yourself in that house on mango street or using a spell to battle dementors at Hogwarts.

When used incorrectly, words sting. They slice like a knife, only the wounds are inside and there isn’t any bandage or ointment you can apply to it to make it feel better. Sometimes the words are carried with us, an internal scar that can’t just be wished away. Sometimes the words are so bad they’re able to chip away at who you are — at your self esteem, at your beliefs, at the things or people you once loved.

The thing about words is that you can’t take them back. Once you’ve said something, especially when someone else is around, those words and thoughts have left your mouth forever and it’s no longer private, no longer yours. We don’t think of this on a day-to-day basis as we are making casual conversation, mostly because a lot of what we say really does feel inconsequential. “How’s the weather?” – “Oh, it’s a bit warm today.”

And then we move on.

But some things we say really do have a lasting impact. Sometimes we intend it to (telling someone we love and care about them, for example, is something we’d like to stick with them), but many times, we don’t.

Here are a few commonly-used phrases that are actually offensive — as well as a few suggested alternatives — to give us something to think about the next time we speak. And please know I’m not claiming to be the official arbitrator of what is and isn’t offensive, and I do know that everyone has a different opinion of what is hurtful. But I like to err on the side of caution because once we’ve said something, we can’t take it back.

Casual use of the word “rape”

Examples: “That science test raped me earlier today!” or “I totally just raped that speech at work.”

Why it hurts: It’s never okay to belittle rape or sexual assault, and that’s exactly what this phrase does. Rape is a horrific event that happens far more frequently than you may think. Every two minutes, someone in the U.S. is sexually assaulted. One in four women will be raped before she graduates college. 97% of rapists will never spend a day in jail. So equating the word “rape” with something as insignificant as how poorly you did on a test or how well you did on a speech is not only offensive, it’s downright cruel. Let’s not try to belittle the very real experience of sexual assault survivors.

Alternatives: There are so many other, more eloquent ways to express frustration and/or pride.

  • I totally stunk at that test.
  • I rocked that speech.
  • Literally anything else.

Slurs

Examples: It pains me to write these out, so I’m going to censor the words slightly. Please, please, please don’t ever use hateful slurs, including (but not limited) to: f-ggot, sp-c, n-gger (with the “a” or without and ALL variations, including sand n-gger), ch-nk. I could go on, but please don’t make me.

Why it hurts: Considering racism and homophobia are still rampant in the U.S. (and elsewhere), there is no excuse to ever resort to using a slur. It attacks the core of someone’s being, something that defines who they are, something that is inherently intertwined with their identity. “It’s just a word!” some say, “What about my right to free speech?!” We all have a right to free speech, but freedom of speech is not freedom from criticism. As much as someone may have a “right” to say those words, others have a “right” to criticize as well.

Alternatives: The English language is vast. If you need an insult, do some searching! Get creative with it. Below are some funny/quirky insults, all of which are actual words (sans the last one, which is from the movie “Elf”):

  • Blockhead
  • Schnook
  • Cockalorum
  • Ninnyhammer
  • Snollygoster
  • Cotton-headed ninny muggins

“Soft” hate speech AKA “microaggressions”

Example: To put it simply, a microaggression is an offensive thing either said or done that may seem innocent, but actually reinforces negative ideology and contributes to systematic oppression. It sounds like a lot to process, but this is really important. These are all things that are seemingly harmless statements that actually amount to something larger: racism, sexism, homophobia, and other crippling societal issues.

One major example is saying “All [insert marginalized group] are [adjective].” All Asians are smart. All black people are great at basketball. All gay men are great with fashion. All Latinas are hot. These are not compliments, they are stereotypes, and stereotypes are harmful. It doesn’t matter if you have a friend/boss/cousin who is [insert the group you’re talking about] and they say it’s okay. It may be okay to them, but no one person can speak for an entire group.

Some examples:

  • Calling something “ghetto”
  • Saying something is “gay” to mean “bad” or “stupid”
  • Saying you got “gypped” or “jewed”
  • Referring to something as “retarded”
  • “[such and such] is my spirit animal” (See comments for further explanation)
  • Telling people of color (particularly black or Latino/a people) they are “articulate”
  • Asking “what are you?” or “where are you from?” (See comments for further explanation)
  • Asking to touch a POC’s hair
  • Calling someone “exotic” (thereby assuming that white = not exotic and therefore “normal”)
  • Impersonating another race

Why it hurts: These statements, however well-intended or “harmless” they may seem, are built off of ideas that stem from overtly racist/sexist beliefs. In turn, they also help to reinforce these beliefs. Try to think of it like this: you know that saying “never assume anything, because it makes an ass out of (yo)u and me”? Making blanket statement about a particular group of people assumes a lot. A hell of a lot, and often inaccurately.

Compare negative statements like “all Latinas are hotheaded” to something like “all white people are ugly and stupid” or “all white people are money-hungry.” What? All white people aren’t ugly and stupid! They’re not all money-hungry! Similarly, not all Latinas are hot-headed, not all black people are sassy, not all Asians are submissive, etc. It is impossible to know something about an entire group of people.

Alternatives: Don’t make blanket statements, period. Stay away from any racially-tinged sayings, too, and be mindful of how you are treating other people. The golden rule (treat others how you want to be treated) works well.

“Outdated” racial terms

Examples: Language evolves. Because of that, sometimes things that were once acceptable to say are no longer okay. “Colored” is a great example, as it was once a word used even by black individuals — see the NAACP standing for National Association for the Advancement of Colored People — but the term has since fallen out of use. (More examples below, with the preferred vernacular.)

Why it’s offensive: I understand these words are typically not intended to be malicious, and sometimes we genuinely had no idea a word has fallen out of use. That’s fine — no one expects us to know everything, all the time! However, if someone says, “Maybe you shouldn’t say that word,” rather than get defensive and angry, just nod and apologize. Usually the other person will move on. Also, a quick Google search will usually point you in the right direction, but if your gut is making you feel it might be offensive, then just don’t say it.

Alternatives: The following list is set up with words that have fallen out of practice (for whatever reason), followed by the preferred vernacular. This should serve as only a general, overall list, as I am not the authority on all of these things.

  • Orientals: Asian, Asian American, or a more specific term, such as Chinese, Japanese, or Filipino.
  • Colored/Negro: While you likely won’t get much side-eye for saying “African American,” that term is starting to fall out of favor. Use “black” when you can.
  • Ch-nk: Chinese, Chinese American.
  • Minorities: When referencing black/Latin@/Asian/etc, say “people of color.”
  • Midget: Little Person.
  • Indian: Unless in reference to someone who is literally from India, go with American Indian or Native American.
  • Jap: Japanese, Japanese American.
  • Handicapped/physically challenged/wheelchair-bound: “So-and-so has a physical disability/cannot walk/visually impaired/uses a wheelchair.”
  • Tranny: Depending on the situation and/or what the person identifies as, transgender may work. Trans* — with the asterisk if written online — may also work. More info: here.

Overall, I think the most important thing to note is we are only human and we all make mistakes. In list form like this, it can feel overwhelming and seem like everything we do and say is offensive. True that we cannot make everyone happy, but we should at least be trying not to be a jerk. If you say something accidentally offensive, there are two things to do: 1. apologize. 2. don’t say it again. That’s it! It doesn’t have to be a huge thing, you don’t have to harp on it and make yourself feel bad for days. All you have to do is say you’re sorry and then learn from it.

Photo credit BJN.

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15 responses to “The Power of Words: Why We Should Watch What We Say

  1. well, that is SOME list. I am not sure why it would be bad to refer to someone as your “spirit animal” what does that even mean – never heard that before. I have noticed a trend in people using the word rape loosely – I cringe when i hear that. I am glad to see you included “retard” on your list I have heard this A LOT and it really bothers me when people use it to imply something negative. I would never allow my kids to use it and it seemed to be tossed around all the time.

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    • It is, but thankfully I think most of the things on the list have fallen out of practice and/or are not things many people say regularly. So, for example, I sometimes used the word “retarded” to describe things and it’s a really bad habit — definitely something I’m working on! I figure others will not have an issue/never use some of the language that’s here, but maybe have 1-2 to work on. 🙂

      Most people use the term “spirit animal” to mean that a person/thing is a literal representation of themselves in a different form. So, for example, if someone LOVES Hillary Clinton and all that she stands for and feels the two of them behave similarly or connect on another level, they might say, “Hillary Clinton is my spirit animal!” The argument against spirit animal (and I’m not Native American so I can’t really speak to it, this is just what I’ve read) is that using the phrase in that context is culturally appropriative of Native American spiritual beliefs. So it’s not the concept of a spirit animal (feeling that someone/something is/represents you) but just the wording. I think it would be along the same lines of wearing a bindi if you’re not of South Asian descent.

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  2. Well, thanks for clarifying that. I thought it might have something to do with Native American culture, but I have never heard it used as you described.

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  5. So, this comment was left on this article and I’m totally not going to approve it because they weren’t even brave enough to use a real email address: http://i.imgur.com/uxTlIIR.png Which just proves the point of my entire post — own your words. You are free to say mean things, but at least have the backbone to stand behind them.

    All I hear when rude anon comments pop up is, “I do not know how to hold an intellectual conversation. I do not articulate my feelings and do not like people with differing opinions. I can’t handle this. I will lash out.” In this particular case, I’m hearing, “WAHHHHHHHH I like to say racist and sexist things! How dare you tell me not to do it! I should be able to say whatever I want and not be held accountable! I am selfish and don’t care about others!”

    xoxo, Uptight Girl Who Needs to Chill Out 🙂

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  6. I am genuinely curious how asking someone “Where are you from?” could always be offensive? I work with a lot of Latin@ immigrants, and one thing they told me is that a lot of people assume or say they are Mexican, but when people ask they like it; it gives them a chance to share that they are Salvadorian, Costa Rican, etc. So now when I encounter other immigrants like at the nail salon or whatever, I make a point to ask where they are from and how long they have lived in the US. I’m genuinely confused…

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    • There are a lot of layers to the “Where are you from?” question. First, it’s important for me to point out that none of the “rules” I mentioned in this post are steadfast. Race relations are complicated, and you will likely get different answers from different people regarding what they prefer. (It’s confusing, but worth it to be sensitive to how others feel.)

      In your particular case, working with Latin@ immigrants, I don’t think it’s weird or especially offensive to ask where they are from. As many of your clients have mentioned, so many assume that we are Mexican. Therefore, I understand where they are coming from; talking about who they are/where they are from can be important. Since you already know the people you’re surrounded by are immigrants, I think it’s actually GOOD that you’re asking where they are from. You are not making assumptions based on arbitrary things, like skin tone or facial features.

      What I see as problematic is when you apply that practice — asking people you already know are immigrants where they are from — to other people you encounter elsewhere, like at the nail salon. Not all people of color are immigrants. I’m a Latina (Puerto Rican), and if you encountered me in a nail salon and asked where I am from, I’d tell you I was from central Connecticut, not Puerto Rico. Perhaps this answer would sit well with you, and if so, then great! But for many, a follow-up question is, “No, I mean, where are you FROM? Like, what ARE you?” These people (and there are many) want to know “what” a person of color “is” because they don’t look like a typical white person. That’s where part of the problem lies.

      Many Puerto Rican, Jamaican, Chilean, Chinese, Korean, Iraqi, Afghani, etc. individuals are U.S.-born — meaning they aren’t FROM anywhere other than, say, Connecticut or California or South Carolina. So asking where they are from is offensive in the sense that when most people ask a person of color where they are from, they typically mean, “You don’t look white. I want, instead, to know what other thing you are, then.” This ideology creates a dichotomy where people of color are viewed as an other — a foreigner — whereas white people are viewed as the “norm.”

      On top of that, the “Where are you from?” question is almost never asked of white people — or, at the very least, it is not asked in the same vein. If Person A asks a white person where they are from, Person A is likely expecting to hear a U.S. town or state; the assumption is that Person A is merely being friendly/making small talk. If Person A then asks a person of color where they are from, Person A is typically expecting to find out what ethnicity or race the individual is. It’s different, and it’s hurtful.

      So yes, in some situations, asking where someone is from is okay, but the situations are highly specific and rare. In most situations, it’s better not to ask where someone is from and let that point come of naturally, if it does at all. (And sometimes it won’t, and that shouldn’t matter.)

      Hope this helps.

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  8. I reallly enjoyed this article. Specifically since people ask me what I am, call me Indian, wear me as a costume and ask to touch my hair quite often. Furthermore, my fiance gets called a colored boy here in Eastern Oregon quite often. We are a blended family and unfortunately for my children society will always be trying to figure out where they fit and where to put them (i.e. are they black? are they Native American? Where do these kids go?) Thank you for your article and here is one I wrote to guide curious people in indigenous relations http://thoughtcatalog.com/jill-marie-gavin/2013/08/native-america-what-youre-doing-wrong/

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    • That’s a fantastic article. Thank you for sharing your story with me, and I know all too well what it’s like to constantly be mislabeled (I’m Puerto Rican, frequently called Mexican) and I get the “can I touch your hair?” more than I’d like to admit. Thanks again for sharing your piece with me!

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    • Hi Becky. I’m sorry that being a decent human being is so hard for you to comprehend — although I admit I knew this article would definitely go over the heads of some. Sorry to hear that you’re one of them.

      Best of luck in your future endeavors! You’ll need it.

      Like

      • Such a “progressive” reply! I love how you resort to ad hominem attacks by insinuating that someone is less intelligent than you because they believe you to be too politically correct. By going down that road, lose all credibility with me.

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      • Things I care about:

        – Giving people the tools to be a decent human being.
        – Fighting against institutional and social racism, sexism, ableism, and other “isms.”
        – Intelligent discussions and debate surrounding emotional topics.

        Things I don’t care about:

        – Your opinion.

        Goodbye.

        Like

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