Speaking Truth to Power during COVID-19 while confronting racism.
As a black woman and typically the token in the space, the role of facilitating professional Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) trainings typically falls to me. For the first time in my life, I am a participant in the space. My learning from the seats instead of the stage has been profound. As a participant under the tutelage of another black woman, I am uncovering my own internalized oppression, fragility, and ingrained white supremacy values. The most illuminating part thus far has been my anger. A feeling that I tell my clients is natural and yields deep learning, yet for myself, is stunted for fear of validating the “angry black woman stereotype” and suffering the social and professional consequences. Nevertheless, for the past few months on Wednesdays from 12:30–1:30 I have become a very angry black woman! I am experiencing first-hand how necessary anger is.
I am angry at the continual dismissal of the humanity of black people.
I am angry at the energy and fervor put into maintaining the interlocking systems that oppress us.
I am angry at the brutality of capitalism that is still thriving off our backs.
I am angry that things have not changed.
I attended the conversation with Nikole Hannah-Jones when she visited Stanford’s campus in early February back when we could still gather in large groups. Listening to her Pulitzer Prize-winning 1619 podcast has me in a state of grateful rage. I am becoming increasingly conscious of the through-line between slavery and oppressive practices, both overt and subtle, that still exist today. For the first time, I quote Baldwin out of the of raw experience and not out of intellectualized knowledge.
“To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.”
Language is One Link in the Chain
As I examine and hold the weight of this through-line, which is the interconnections of oppressive systems, policies, practices, and beliefs, I get a visceral image of a lengthy, rusty, but fortified chain made up of millions of links. Each link connecting back to that first ship that arrived on the shores of Virginia in 1619.
I believe that to dismantle oppression we need to first intimately know how it is assembled. One link in this chain is language.
Language has been wielded for all sorts of oppressive purposes. Chief among them is its ability to frame worldviews, set definitions, and thus influence the treatment of people. In DEI we have been examining the Social Determinants of Health. In one session we discussed the language we use to describe people experiencing the impact of oppressive systems. In light of COVID-19 death rates in the African-American community and the inequities in access to care, the health determinates are on full display. You hear the following terms:
More likely to…
As a psychologist, I have used each of these terms countless times in thoughtful, well-intended discussions on how to help and serve people. However, I now have serious dissension with these terms. I now see that by using these terms I am unintentionally engaging in and perpetuating a system of victimization. Essentially, using these terms as we currently do places onus is in the wrong direction. Walk with me for a moment. Let us look at the connotation of these words.
“At-Risk” - refers to someone(s) who has an increased chance to experience hardship or harm. When we repeatedly hear this word the undertones morph into an unspoken communication that people who are“at-risk” are: in need of help, helpless, a burden, perhaps negligent, stupid, incompetent, lazy, unwilling, or unmotivated, freeloading, a victim. The term can become shorthand for people who are experiencing said hardship due to a lack of obtaining safeguards for oneself. The worst extension is that these people who are “at-risk” are less than in some way.
“Vulnerable”, when applied to a group of people, has a negative connotation. Vulnerability as an interpersonal dynamic or skill for intimacy is a positive usage of the word. Vulnerable means those who are more susceptible to harm. When applied exclusively and consistently to the same group of people, one can begin to perceive this vulnerability being due to personal or group failings, an inherent deficiency, weakness, being incapable of protecting or defend oneself, defenseless, in need of help, less than, a burden.
“Disproportionately” As a statistical term, it is descriptive and accurate as it conveys a quantity that is too large or too small in relation to another numerical value. Taken further it communicates a difference that is not reasonable or expected. I worry that people comprehend this term not only in its statistical understanding, but may begin to draw other conclusions. People who are disproportionately impacted may be seen as culpable, at fault, or responsible. Namely that they possess the problem instead of the problem being done onto them.
“More likely to..” as a phrase is similarly problematic. The wording leaves the brain to consider that people are prone, liable, perhaps even destined, fated, inevitable, or it is unavoidable to have a particular plight.
Lastly and in some ways, the most sinister is “Historically.” When something is history, it is by definition in the past, gone, done, completed, over with. This term should be used when the phenomena being discussed are in fact in the past, an artifact, no remainder, finished. So let’s be crystal clear, systems of oppression are NOT solely a matter of the past, they are happening now!
I seek to break this link in the chain by changing the way we speak and thus changing the way we perceive, feel, teach, and treat people embedded in oppressive context and circumstances. Since language is a tool. I implore us to re-tool our language.
““For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. Racism and homophobia are real conditions of all our lives in this place and time. ”
A Call for Systems Center Language
Becoming aware and shifting language to better suit our higher calling, better judgment, and moral aims is not new. In the field of health care, we have something called Person First Language (PFL). PFL puts the person before the diagnosis and describes what the person “has”, not what the person “is.” For example, in this model, we would say a person with diabetes or a person with alcoholism. This is a deliberate shift from calling someone a diabetic or an alcoholic. Immediately you feel the paradigm-shifting power of saying someone has alcoholism instead of saying they are an alcoholic. The hope is to feel the wave of humanization and compassion that alters the approach to a person in a struggle rather than defining them by the struggle.
The question becomes can we do this with oppression?
My hope tells me we can. My anger tells me we must!
Systems Centered Language (SCL)
SCL is a linguistic call to action that seeks to end the dehumanization of people that occurs while discussing how they are experiencing oppression. The goal of SCL is to begin to reclaim through language the inherent value of these humans and place accountability where it is due, which is squarely on the interlocking, intergenerational, and very present systems of tyranny and oppression, primarily racism.
This is what it could look like and why.
People are at risk because they have been exposed to harm and/or harmful circumstances. Think about “at-risk” from a systems lens. At-risk youth who may run away from home, bully other kids and abuse drugs have been exposed to toxins, crime, and or violence. At-risk students who struggle to pass classes and require remediation are often in the circumstance of, impoverished resources, experience neurological or learning differences, and endure chronic stress in other domains of life. An at-risk immune system and poor health outcomes are often a product of exposure to less nutrient food perhaps in a food desert, less-resourced families, and communities in environmentally degraded areas with no or very meager health insurance.
Vulnerable is another way of saying that a person’s growth potentials are being prohibited or impeded.
Starkly disproportionate findings are the signature of the system. Therefore let us say so.
I think we failed to realize how young America is. When compared to other countries like Italy that can speak to points in history that date back to B.C., America is a baby! It’s like when a 10-year-old says “when I was young.” For context Ruby Bridges (first African-American child to desegregate the all-white William Frantz Elementary School in Louisiana during the New Orleans school desegregation crisis on 14 November 1960) is only 65 years old this year. Instead of historic, let us own the present, current, and the NOW that is oppression.
“Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge.” -Toni Morrison
Here are a few more to deeply consider.
A quick note on the inevitable push back
Some will say this is not needed. Others will think it is too much work. I understand these objections to be part of the natural resistance to something new that will take effort and expanded consciousness.
I want to speak directly to those who will argue that this call to focus on the system is part of the problem. The “problem” of making people feel victimized and claiming victimhood as an excuse and exemption from personal responsibility for their actions. As a psychologist, I believe that personal actions and autonomy are required sources of healing. This is not a grand cop-out. This is acknowledging the original source of the problem as we heal and hold our own smaller locus of control and accountability. Just as you would not tell a plant in non-nutrient rich soil that it simply cannot grow, we mustn’t tell people suffering at the hands of oppression that they are inherently deficient. When we do, we spend precious time solving the wrong problem and instilling internalized oppression in others. I understand that as a society we do not like systems-level problems. It is much easier to blame the individual and disrobe ourselves from any onus and participation in the problem. But this dismissal simultaneously excludes us from participation in the solution which requires all of us.
We cannot dismantle what we dismiss! Anger is only this first step. We can take the rest of the steps together moving through the pain and grief into transformation and liberation. I implore you to think about the work that you do, the children you are raising, and the casual conversations you add to the canon of reality. Find a way to bring the system front and center in the language that you use.