Sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me.
Never might a saying be so untrue. Physical wounds often heal but words have the power of being so damaging that their impact lasts forever. What we say and the imagery that we use to illustrate those thoughts affects minds and worlds. The power of propaganda and its subsets of racism, sexism and religious intolerance lie in the repetition of phrases and ideas in ways that distort thinking sometimes in subtle almost unnoticeable ways and other times with overtly ugly descriptors. Words have led to the destruction of individuals and entire groups and societies. Often those wielding the hammer of political clout do so with lies and fear and brainwashing in the name of freedom, using words that turn people against their fellow humans for egregious reasons. Sometimes hurtful words or representations are almost hidden in the unlikeliest of places.
I grew up in the south in the middle of the twentieth century when pejoratives aimed at black people were commonplace, slipping off of the tongue with an ease that was far too prevalent. It assumed a kind of ranking of people based only on the color of their skin, not the content of their character. Words were regularly used to relegate black Americans to a lesser status than whites. It was wrong and hurtful and like a toxic poison being injected into the minds of the citizenry by racist powerbroker swho spewed venom with their lips like snakes.
My seventh year of life was marked by a kind of awakening to reality which occurred in rapid succession. I knew of the segregation of people in my home town and listened to my father and grandfather discuss the ongoing battles for basic civil rights that were unfolding on buses, at lunch counters and in schools. Later that same summer I witnessed black families riding on trains with the rest of us while we visited Chicago. I noticed black people eating in the same restaurants where we dined without restrictions. I wondered why there were such differences from one place to another. Suddenly the segregation of the south seemed so very wrong to seven year old me and I cringed at the memories of things I had heard white people say about blacks.
When we traveled further north to Wisconsin I saw signs that seemed familiar but with a twist that I had never before known. Stores posted warnings insisting, “No Indians or dogs allowed!” I wondered how it was possible for one group of people to deny the rights of another based solely on birth. I remembered how my own mother had spoken of being the child of immigrants and enduring the touts and insults of other children in her neighborhood who called her and her siblings “dirty dumb Polacks.”
Even though my mama always insisted that hearing the ugly words tossed at her had only made her strong, I somehow sensed even as a child that they had hurt her deeply. Those darts had been intended to scar her and they had succeeded even though she had done her best to simply ignore them. She fought for her entire life to prove that she was as good as anyone else.
Not long after the family vacation that had enlightened me to the ugliness of words and the real stench of racism we moved to San Jose, California. I don’t think I knew a single Asian person before that time but I would soon see many of them in stores and even in my school. I heard a playground chant for the very first time that had a kind of lilting innocence and humor that I would come to realize was yet another way of denigrating people with a few carefully chosen words. It went something like this, “Ching Ching Chinaman sitting on a fence trying to make a dollar out of fifteen cents.”
When my father explained its meaning I was shocked to learn that yet another group of people were having to endure the harshness of words intended to hurt them. My childlike mind simply could not and did not understand why there was so much unkindness in a world that had been so gentle to me. When I begged my parents for an explanation they told me it was just the way things were, a reality that even then I found impossible to accept.
These days there are efforts to confuse us when words are used to demean an individual or group. Defenders of hate speech speak of our freedom to speak as we wish that is guaranteed in our First Amendment. Certainly our laws do not imprison or fine someone for being either openly or overtly hurtful but recent egregious rhetoric has been more often defended rather than condemned, especially when it comes from the mouths of those with the most influence and power. While I too am wary of policing speech, I do believe that it is incumbent upon all of us to call out the most horrific instances of words meant to insult and degrade any person or group. Blindly ignoring such utterances or even worse finding some misguided joy in them is becoming all too common and in the process violence toward certain people is escalating.
When we characterize every person attempting to draw attention to the questionable deaths of black citizens at the hands of law enforcement as looters, rioters and unpatriotic trouble makers our words muddy the discussion and ignore the realities of injustice that continue to plague blacks in America today. If our president jokes about the virus that has taken lives day after day for a full year by calling it the China flu or the kung flu he leads many to somehow believe that our Asian population is responsible for the suffering and losses that we have endured. When we are continually warned that immigrants crossing our southern borders are dangerous criminals, rapists, illegals we begin to classify them as somehow less than the rest of us who are only here by accident of our births. When we cling to slanderous labels for those whose sexual orientation is different from ours we dehumanize them and make their life choices seem somehow dirty. When we allow anyone to degrade or debase another human with words without calling them out our silence makes us complicit in the violence that too often follows such pronouncements.
We cannot take away someone’s right to say something ugly and hurtful but we certainly should be willing to note the wrongness of their utterances. We have the right to refuse to give such people support or adulation or excuses. Sadly in today’s world we have far too many who are willing to look the other way just to satisfy their own comfortable existences. We don’t seem to want to rock the boat but history has demonstrated that supporting those who would “kill” with their words only leads to greater and greater problems. It’s time that we insist that racist, sexist, or any other kind of hurtful speech be instantly condemned for the harm it inflicts. Looking away should never be an option.