December 9, 2021

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When Talking About Identity, How Much Do Words Matter?

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Language has always had power. Words can hurt, offend and provoke, but they can also empower, uplift and inspire. They can even change culture. Language has always evolved, and that is certainly true for language related to race, ethnicity, gender and sexuality.

Words and terms like BIPOC, P.O.C., she/her, he/him, they/them, nonbinary, LGBTQIA+, antiracism, white privilege and microaggression might have been unfamiliar to most people even a decade ago. “African American” is sometimes being superseded by “Black,” with a capital “B.” The term “queer” has been reclaimed by some, but still reads as hate speech to others. And debates erupt over whether to use Latinx or Latino for people of Latin American descent.

Have you noticed this kind of evolving language within your school community? How careful are you with the language you use to discuss identity and social issues? Do you think this debate over language is a meaningful social justice imperative, or does it miss what is most important: substantive policy changes?

In “BIPOC or POC? Equity or Equality? The Debate Over Language on the Left,” Amy Harmon writes:

In California, a Black college freshman from the South is telling a story about his Latino friends from home when he is interrupted by a white classmate. “We say ‘Latinx’ here,” he recalls her saying, using a term he had not heard before, “because we respect trans people.”

In Philadelphia, Emma Blackson challenges her white neighbor’s assertion that Black children misbehave in school more than others. “It’s just my implicit bias,” the neighbor offers, saying that she had recently learned the phrase.

In Chicago, Kelsey O’Donnell, 31, wonders why colleagues and friends have suddenly started saying “BIPOC,” an acronym that encompasses individuals who are Black, Indigenous or other people of color. Where had it come from? “There was really nobody to ask,” says Ms. O’Donnell, who is white. “It was just, ‘This is what we say now.’”

Americans have always wrestled with language when it comes to describing race, with phrases and vocabulary changing to meet the struggles and values of the moment. But especially in the wake of protests for social justice in the summer of 2020, there is a heightened attention to this language, say scholars and activists, as some on the left try to advance changes in the culture through words.

“You can’t change what you can’t name,” Cathy Albisa, vice president of institutional and sectoral change at the racial justice nonprofit Race Forward, said.

For some people, though, the new lexicon has become a kind of inscrutable code, set at a frequency that only a narrow, highly educated slice of the country can understand, or even a political litmus test in which the answers continually change. Others feel disappointment, after so many protests last summer demanded far deeper change on issues like criminal justice and voting rights.

Students, read the entire article, and then tell us:

  • What is your reaction to this article? What do you think about the debate over “language on the left”? Why?

  • Are you highly conscious of the words you use when discussing race, gender and sexuality? Do you ever start discussions about language or about the labels or pronouns that resonate most with you?

  • Are there words used to describe elements of your identity that you are more comfortable with than others? Are there words or terms used in your community that, even though they are intended to be empowering, make you uncomfortable or confused?

  • Rashad Robinson, president of the racial justice organization Color of Change, said, “When you’ve been on the margin, being able to claim a language and a narrative and a set of words to express yourself is incredibly important.” Do you agree?

  • Kelsey O’Donnell, 31, of Chicago said, “I’m exhausted by the constant need to be wary or you’ll instantly be labeled racist or anti-trans.” Do you ever find language to be a minefield? In your community, what happens when someone uses the “wrong” word? Is there any reaction? If so, is the reaction proportionate to the offense? Why or why not?

  • Is the subject of language about race, gender and sexuality a sensitive issue in your community? Has any of the “language of the left” discussed in this article been embraced by the people you know? Or has there been a backlash against it?

  • Do you agree with those quoted in the article who consider this new attention to language a “dodge” — a way to avoid substantive policy changes, like investing in more affordable housing or quality education? Is this debate over language missing the point? Or do you think changes in language are a necessary step toward achieving justice? Why or why not?


Want more writing prompts? You can find all of our questions in our Student Opinion column. Teachers, check out this guide to learn how you can incorporate them into your classroom.

Students 13 and older in the United States and Britain, and 16 and older elsewhere, are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public.

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