Bravery as a Word

Picture description: blue background, light skinned hand holding a blue wood sign “Home of the Brave,” red and white beads on top of sign. Photo by RODNAE Productions on

Yom Kippur was earlier this week. During this season of reflection and atonement, G’mar chatima tovah.

The word brave/bravery has been gnawing at me for a few weeks. Specifically, how different race groups use the word or don’t use the word brave. I see the word brave being thrown around a lot by white people. For POCs the word can have a very different meaning.

As an example, recently a white parent mentioned her kid was being brave by attending a sleep-away camp with other kids. I can see how for the family this was a big step for the child. The kid had to face fears and do something different, possibly new, without the comfort of her parents around. Validating her feelings and encouraging the young child was important for a successful camping trip. Or in another example, my friend who is a nurse and volunteered at a pediatric COVID vaccine clinic told me so many of the white parents would praise their kids for “being brave” by getting vaccinated. She said the word was thrown around so much at the vaccination clinic by the white families and rarely uttered by poc families.

For people of color, bravery is very different. Many Black and Brown people don’t have the same luxury of using the word bravery so passively. When pocs use the word bravery, it is often associated with something rarified, challenging on a systemic level, or where they will be in harms way often with dire personal consequences (e.g., protesting, whistleblowing where they could lose a job, facing/challenging an authority figure, etc.).

My friend Kristin, who is an English teacher and loves words, pointed out that technically the definition of brave allows for both uses – big use such as calling out inequities, and smaller uses such as recognizing personal bravery (doing something uncomfortable, i.e. getting vaccinated). She pointed out when enough people use a word a certain way language adapts to allow for the new meaning. I don’t want the word bravery to lose its hard edge in favor centering personal accomplishments such as braving traffic, getting a vaccination, or going to camp.

People of color don’t receive nor ask for the same benefit of being ‘brave’ for everyday actions. Some of the bravest acts I have witnessed have come from pocs who don’t feel they are acting with bravery. They speak up, show up, and act because they feel the urgency to right a wrong and call out injustices or there are consequences for themselves or others. Many of these pocs would not say they acted with bravery – they may say they had to work up the courage to act and recognize the need of others which propelled their bravery.

To say the word bravery is applied equally to both and we shouldn’t judge or equate the two together takes away from the bravery needed by Black and Brown people to survive.

‘That’s why you’ve got to be brave, brave, brave.’

I remember reading that quote in the book Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. A Black elder Ms. Carr, in the presence of Rosa Parks, told Bryan Stevenson “That’s why you’ve got to be brave, brave, brave” after he explained his civil rights work and taking on cases to overthrow death row convictions.

I want people to act with bravery and recognize we have to do hard things, break rules, and break conventions to end racism. Not every action needs to be labeled as ‘brave.’ Some of the actions could be recognized as courageous, challenging, hard, determined, bold, or even uncomfortable.

We do need to recognize and validate ourselves and each other when we do uncomfortable and hard things – that is part of human growth, learning, and change. My ask is we be more thoughtful with how we racialize words and use words in ways that recognize the racialization of language and be conscious of how words like bravery are not equally used.  

Why I wrote this: Language is important to understanding race and how it impacts people of color. I also wanted to explore the concept of bravery from a racialized perspective.

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I am writing from the lands of the 29 federally recognized and non-federally recognized tribes in now Washington State, including the Coast Salish people — Duwamish, Muckleshoot, Suquamish, Snoqualmie, Snohomish, and Native American organizations that have treaty rights and have been here since time immemorial. I give my thanks to the elders, Native and Indigenous colleagues and relations, and the land itself. Fakequity pays “rent” to Native organizations in Washington and Hawaii; a small act to repair and work to be in more justice-based relations.