Language Matters

Language Matters Header
Poonam Desai, Ph.D., LSSP, Mental Health Trainer
By Poonam Desai, Ph.D., LSSP, Mental Health Trainer Dec 04, 2017

Sticks and stones can break our bones, but words can never hurt us. We’ve all grown up with some version of this adage. While it’s true that spoken words cannot physically hurt, they can certainly cause emotional and psychological pain that makes people feel invisible, unwelcome, and unsafe.

Though we still see overt racism, like racial slurs, there are also many subtle ways we may make others feel different. The language we use matters and can convey important messages about how we perceive others.

One area where this is particularly important is how individuals identify themselves.

Our brains are wired to categorize those around us – as friend or foe, safe or unsafe, helpful or unhelpful. This is a primitive survival strategy. Long ago, it was critical to be able to identify someone from your own tribe versus another. If you made a mistake, you might not walk away alive. But while categorization of others is no longer needed for basic human survival, the brain is still working in this primitive way.

We make many assumptions about the race and ethnicity of others. Here are some commonly misused and misunderstood identifiers.

Indian, American-Indian, Native American:

The term “Indian” connotes those who are from or whose ancestors are from the country of India. When Columbus landed in the Americas, he thought he had reached the shores of India, his intended destination. The aboriginal population was then called “Indian” or “American Indian,” both of which are untrue, though this is still contested by some. Regardless, “Native American” is more commonly used now as a collective term for descendants of these aboriginal tribes. “First Nations” is also used for aboriginal people of Canada and the Arctic regions. Many people, however, refer to themselves as part of a particular tribe.

Black, African American:

Terms for people of African ancestry have changed over time. The use of different identifiers has been tied to different movements, current and past. You will likely find individuals who identify as either Black or African American. Some people don’t use either and may relate to terms such as colored, Afro-American or Negro. Some individuals feel very strongly about how they identify, while others may use terms interchangeably.

Hispanic, Latino/Latin@/Latinx, Mexican, Chicano:

Hispanic individuals are those who come from Spanish-speaking countries (including Spain). Latino/Latin@/Latinx individuals are those come from Latin-American countries, which include Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking countries, most of Central and South America, the Caribbean, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Costa Rica. The difference in endings has to do with gender identification. The Spanish language defaults to masculine form when referring to a collective group of people. Thus, individuals began using the @ sign to encompass males and females. More recently the “X” was added at the end to account for gender fluidity.

Mexican and Chicano are used to identify individuals who have come specifically from Mexico and/or are of Mexican descent.

That’s a lot to keep track of, isn’t it? We can guarantee most people are not going to get this right on the first, second, or third try. However, the reason we keep trying is because identity matters to all of us. Using appropriate terms to identify people conveys a sense of respect for their individuality. Rather than getting grumpy about not knowing what to say to someone, use these instances as opportunities to get curious.

The language of genuine curiosity puts the power of identification in the hands of the other person. If you are curious, you might ask, “How do you identify your race/ethnicity?” rather than making an assumption one way or the other. You might also indicate your interest in respectfully learning more about another person by identifying yourself. You could say something like, “I identify as a [race, ethnicity, gender, etc.]. This a big part of who I am. I’d like to know how you identify so I can understand you better.”

Remember that one person cannot and should not be a “spokesperson” for an entire group they identify with. You might say, “I don’t know what that’s like. I wonder if you would feel comfortable sharing a little of your own experience with me so I can learn?” It is important to be even more cautious when speaking to students who are still forming much of their identity. When you want to ask a student to share about their culture, race or ethnicity, you could say, “I am really not the expert here, and I don’t believe any one person can speak about a whole group of people. Nevertheless, if there is anyone that would feel comfortable sharing his/her own story, that might help us understand a little more.”

At the end of the day, it is important that people feel that their race, culture and ethnicity are honored and respected. If you can’t keep track of all of these terms – don’t fret! Instead, approach interactions with a sense of curiosity and a desire to learn and respect those around you. 

©2017 Momentous Institute

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