The Power of Language from a Social Justice Perspective 

“I never said she stole my money.”

As a recent college graduate with degrees in literature and professional writing, and as someone who has always been in love with reading and writing, this is one of my favorite sentences: the meaning changes depending on which word you choose to emphasize. “I never said she stole my money” is a completely different sentence than “I never said she stole my money.” It’s just one example that illustrates the intricacy of the English language, an example of why I find words so fascinating.

Language is one of the most powerful tools we possess. We can use our words to express love, reassurance, and kindness just as easily as we use them to convey hatred, intolerance, and meanness. Words have the ability to foster an inclusive, safe, and caring environment, but they also have the power to enforce dangerous stereotypes, spread falsehoods, and/or promote exclusivity.

With power comes responsibility, and it’s important to understand the impact our words can have on those around us. There are so many words and phrases we may use innocently that are rooted in oppression or have unkind/offensive undertones. Here are three expressions that come up in everyday speech that we should strive to change:

  1. “Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls…”
    …but some people aren’t ladies, gentlemen, boys, or girls. We (finally) live in a society that is beginning to support and accept the identities of nonbinary people and folks with fluid gender identities, so why exclude them from these types of phrases? It’s so much easier and takes less effort to say “folks” or “everyone,” anyway.
  2. “The gays/blacks/women/transgenders” (emphasis on “the”)
    I read an awesome article about this the other day, which you can find here. The author perfectly captures everything I could say about this topic. For example, he writes, “Using the word ‘the’ in front of a group is a way of highlighting the group’s otherness.” Instead, we should say “people of color” or “members of the gay community.” Phrases like these establish people as people first, and then establish their identities.
  3. “That test just raped me.”
    I don’t think it did, though. I think that your test was very difficult and you feel like you didn’t get a very good grade, but I don’t think it raped you. Rape is a very serious and traumatic event, one that one in six women will experience in their lifetime. Whether you realize it or not, you know someone who has survived rape and/or sexual assault, and trivializing their experience by comparing it doing poorly on a test or getting beat in a video game only adds to the stigma they already have to battle. So many people (including a lot of people in power) don’t take sexual violence seriously and instead blame the survivor for drinking too much, wearing a certain outfit, or being out alone past a certain time. Comments like “we just got raped” when talking about your football team losing a game, as well as other aspects of rape culture, are the reason why so many sexual violence survivors suffer in silence.

I’m guilty of using some of these phrases, too, but each day I work hard to unlearn these staples. Language may not seem like a big deal to some people, but that may be because they have never been subjected to hurtful speech on account of their race, gender, sexuality, etc. By listening to others, we can work to curb our speech to be inclusive, loving, and respectful.

One comment

  1. We still definitely have a lot to change in our society. I think I actually do use some of those phrases, and yeah maybe using the word “rape” is actually not a word we should use, but i dont know… I guess it’s just a matter of time (a lot).


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