Commentary | The oppressive power of language

How the words you use can help perpetuate an imbalanced system

Privilege is real. There are few people in the world who do not have some sort of societal privilege over others. We here at McGill have the privilege of access to education that is deemed legitimate in any part of the world, and we had the privilege of choosing whether or not we wanted to go to this school. Some of us may also have, among others, white privilege, cis-privilege, male privilege, or able-bodied privilege over the people around us. Every aspect of our lives is affected by our privileges and disadvantages, regardless of whether or not we acknowledge them.

If you follow that logic, it’s easy to understand why then language is important. It’s vital for forming our understanding of the world around us. When you use oppressive language, or even an oppressive word, you are not just attacking an individual, you are helping to perpetuate the subjugation of an entire group of people. You’re bringing back the history of oppression that is associated with that word.

When a white person uses the word “nigger” for example, they are ignoring the fact that the word is symbolic of a period when it was mainstream to view and treat black people as less than human. White people have the privilege of never having had the word used in association with themselves. Indeed, their privilege also means that there is no word in the English language that is equally as dehumanizing to white people. “Nigger” may be a more extreme racial slur, but it’s one that I’ve noticed people becoming more comfortable with lately.

I use the example of racial oppression because it is one that personally affects me, but the rationale behind it is applicable to any oppressed group. All minority groups have had derogatory words or phrases used against them at some point in history.

The only people who have the right to decide if and when a word can be used are those within the oppressed group itself. Many people in different minority groups have chosen to reclaim certain words, in order to erode their negative power. In this way, the word belongs to them, and not to their oppressors. It is important to note, however, that no minority group is homogeneous, and that while some people may be in favour of reclamation, there are just as many who think it is harmful. Some people within minority groups don’t find language important, and don’t mind people outside of their group using derogatory slang. The important thing to remember, though, is that if you are not a part of that minority group, you do not get a say about if or when a derogatory term is appropriate to use. Since you do not experience that oppression, you do not have an understanding of how best to combat it.

Of course, I can’t make you do anything, and the way you live your life is entirely up to you. Remember, however, that your words as well as your actions have an effect on the people around you, and that language has just as much of a role in contributing to oppression as anything else. Understanding that oppression is real, and that we all play a role in perpetuating it, is the first step towards its deconstruction.

Zina Mustafa is a U1 International Development Studies student. She can be reached at zina.mustafa@mail.mcgill.ca.


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