How we talk – shifting language

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Artwork from Amplifier Art by Nicolas Lampert

A while ago Jondou and I had a conversation about terminology. We were text-chatting about how social justice terminology changes and flexes, can call in or create hierarchies, and how being inclusive means being wordier, but that is ok. It is the social justice gymnastics we do.

Our conversation included thinking about the phrase BIPOC – Black Indigenous People of Color. It is a newer term, growing out of people of color. It is a way to make Blacks and Indigenous people more visible and to not lose the voice in the collective poc efforts.

As we chatted Jondou and I talked about how does phrasing build solidarities or does it create hierarchies. The term people of color was a way for the poc/non-white community to be seen together and to be equals and hopefully in more just relation with each other. The question we asked ourselves (over text) is does that really happen? Are we all equals when we say poc and alternatively does BIPOC create hierarchies and competition within our communities? I mentioned how several Black colleagues have shared they prefer the term BIPOC or Black and Brown people because they feel more visible with that terminology. I also said as an Asian with many privileges this is one shift I can make to be an ally.

Jondou mentioned how in his work he specifically calls out the queer community by saying Queer and LGBTIA+ folks “because there are people who want one designation and refuse the other” and it allows for people to seek and define their own justice.

While these sometimes create for wordier phrasing it is important to allow people to be seen how they want to be seen and defined. Creating space and seeking just relationships means we listen and take our lead from others.

Othering On Purpose

A few years ago, I was fortunate to attend the Othering and Belonging Conference run by the Hass Institute at UC Berkley, hosted by Prof. john a. powell (doesn’t capitalize his name). He is the grandfather or father of targeted universalism and researching othering and belonging. One of the keynotes I distinctly remember was by African American writer Melissa Harris Perry. She took many of the concepts we had spent the past few conference days learning and tossed them aside in a good way.

My lesson from her talk was there are times it is ok to be othered, if it is by our own design and choosing. I think of terminology and defining who we are as an exercise in purposeful and intentional othering, in different words self-determination. There are times we as communities of color can be in solidarity with each other and allow our language to be united. There are also spaces and times when we want to purposefully be seen differently and we need to understand this is what people need to be in more just relation with each other and it is ok to create this space and redefine the terms of engagement.

I also took away the lesson sometimes what is right for one person isn’t right for others. Belonging may not be what everyone wants – sometimes we want to stand aside to either create space for others, or to innovate and create. Innovation and creating new ways of seeing the world and each other. When we allow ourselves space to more fully see Black, Indigenous, and Brown people we are creating our own justices and opening ourselves to new ideas and thoughts that change us for the better.

My final lesson is social justice movements are always changing and shifting and language has to shift with it. We need to have the conversations and evolution to be current. Don’t get too attached to whatever terms you’re using, they will change again and most likely for the better. My other final half-lesson is if you’re ever unsure about what terms to use, first listen to pickup on how others are using language, and second if you’re still unsure it is ok to politely ask how what phrasing people prefer.


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