The Power of Language: Microaggressions, Racial Slurs, and Pronouns (Oh My!)

As a gender studies major, my education has been built upon the power of language. Whether it be in the importance of gender pronouns within the transgender experience, or in our united fight against micro-aggressions (racial slurs, racial insensitivity, homophobic language, heteronormative language, or terminology rooted in the gender binary), words have never been “just words” to me or to anyone in my field of study. Words are power. Words are influence. Words are stirrers of change. And most importantly, words are privileges.

Starting with the historical transition from “colored people” to “people of color,” we are given concrete evidence of how society views language’s power. In a postmodern era, there was clearly a need to shift our racial jargon to language that was more reverent to minority identities. So, the most monumental transformation of commonly-used racial lingo was born. And though to some, a conscious effort to use “people of color” over its historical predecessor seems like a trivial concern in the grand scheme of things, especially given our turbulent political climate, it is actually the opposite. Words are products of their history, and in the case of the distinction between “people of color” vs. “colored people” is especially important when consider how the term “colored people,” is ridden with racist history, systemic oppression, and racial discrimination.

Moving on to a more modern debate of language, regarding more “modern” identities, language surrounding trans folk has been especially important in my studies. For example, pronouns in Trans discussions are essential in both honoring and acknowledging the Trans identity and its presence in our society. Pronouns are not optional, or “preferred” to Trans folk, they are a form of respect and love. Yet another facet of trans-inspired language that works to prove that words are so much more than “just words,” is the terminology: “identify as.” As the Transgender movement has slowly gained recognition in the LGBTQIA movement, colloquial uses of “I identify as trans” and “I identify as female,” have become increasingly normalized in our everyday conversation. But this is not a purposeless normalization. On the contrary, using said terminology is a powerful and active rejection of transphobia, as it reinforces the idea that all of us, cisgender or not, claim our own gender, and do not have to rely on our at-birth sex assignment.

And while my fellow Gender Studies major usually understand how truly impactful language can be, there seems to be some internal contradictions within Conservative values of linguistics. For example, Conservative narratives often support anti-bullying campaigns centered on the power of our words and the destructive effects of name-calling, yet turn a blind eye to influence of recognizing pronouns, and the power of carefully selecting words and phrases that are not sexist, racist, classist, or gendered. And when the LDS Church released a statement about their rebranding as the “members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints” rather than being referred to as the more casual label “Mormons,” it stirred an epiphany, of sorts, of the logical inconsistency of Conservative rhetoric surrounding language and its power.

In this case specifically, these same religious conservatives that insist that caution with language is a worthless pursuit, argue that their religious jargon is deserving of attention and thoughtful-use. Which leads me to my most important question, if we are to reduce political correctness and caution with language to the whims of “Liberal Snowflakes,” what are we really saying? Are we claiming that the verbal and mental abuse domestic-abuse victims face is just “over-sensitivity?” Are these young children who suffer from bullying and internalize name calling just “sissies?” And if this is the case, and sticks and stones are the only things that can hurt us, then wouldn’t we have to discount the impact of language in all realms of our lives. For example, if we deemphasize the importance of language like gender pronouns, and discount the impact of things like racial slurs or homophobic insults, then don’t we, by obligation, have to deemphasize the words of “husband” or “wife” or even “male” or “female.” Returning once again to the logical consistencies in Conservative narratives, if words really only have the power we give them, then why do conservative minds so strictly abide by language and terminology rooted in the gender binary (man, woman, male, female, feminine, masculine, etc.)

To be quite frank, I think we all have a mutual understanding of how important language really is. But, unfortunately, we have allowed political partisanship to divide us on yet another issue. To combat such polarization, we must use our agency, our knowledge, and our unique experiences with how language affects our own lives, to speak out on the importance of the written and spoken word.

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