A Single Word

The Washington Redskins are no more!

The team still exists and the ownership hasn’t changed (too bad), but the name finally has!  And it only took about six decades.[1]  That’s how long it took for enough people to understand that word is offensive.  And wrong.  And perpetuates negative stereotypes about Native Americans.  That’s how ingrained in our culture the power of a word can be.  That it can perpetuate a negative stereotype for decades and still no one does anything about it.  Words can have a powerful impact on how we perceive people and make assumptions about their character.  It’s disturbing to me why this took so long.  If there had been a team named the Washington Yellowskins with an Asian face as a mascot, it would be instantly obvious as a racist depiction.  But because this term had been ingrained in our vocabulary for so many years, it was accepted and even stirred some to question why it was racist.

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But our history is filled with words like this.

Words that have charged meaning or who’s usage has changed over time.  Like the word “Indian.”  That SHOULD refer to people who actually come from India or have Indian ancestry, but most Americans hear that word and immediately think of tomahawks and long-feathered headdresses instead.  And why? Because for so long we’ve used that word to incorrectly describe a whole group of people.  Even though we’ve known for centuries it was wrong.  We have other words like that, too.  Words like “Oriental” and “Negro” where over time they have become outdated and in their outdated-ness have become negative.  When I hear the word “Oriental,” I don’t think of myself.  I think of some caricature of a dude with slanted eyes, a triangular hat, wearing some gold-laced print shirt that’s too big with matching pants.  So admittedly I’m offended when other people refer to me as Oriental.  Now there are some Asians who don’t mind, and that’s fine.  But just because some Asians aren’t offended doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be sensitive to those who are.  The times are changing and we need to change with it.

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Words have power.

With a single word, you can alienate someone, make them feel as if they don’t belong, or even reinforce a racial hierarchy that says some people are better than others based on nothing more than skin color.  It isn’t enough to say “Well, I didn’t mean it.”  In this day and age in particular, we should be all the more attuned to that.  I’m sure the officer who killed George Floyd “didn’t mean it,” but had he simply done something other than place a knee against his throat, it wouldn’t have happened.  Ignorance doesn’t allow us to escape responsibility.  We have to constantly do better.   This idea that words have power isn’t new.  As the saying goes, it’s as old as the Bible itself.  In our passage this morning, James, the brother of Jesus,  was trying to warn the church not to take what we say casually.  That we can cause far more damage than we realize when we aren’t careful with our words.  This is how he put it.

Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.

When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.

All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. 10 Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. 11 Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? 12 My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.

Our praise is meaningless if we can’t control our tongues.

We can’t lift up praise to God and with the same mouth belittle our fellow human beings.  It just doesn’t work that way.  A salt spring cannot produce fresh water.  The tongue might seem to be a little thing, but by itself it can be devastating.  And it doesn’t even have to be intentional.  Sometimes people can say things that seem innocuous but that continue to prop up systems of racial injustice.  Being born Asian, I’ve had more than one person come up to me and say, “You speak really good English.”  First of all, they should have said I speak English well, but more importantly, they weren’t complimenting my use of grammar or my sentence structure.  They were implying, “You speak really good English…for an Oriental.”  People don’t realize how insulting that is or how it points out that somehow you aren’t normal, that being Asian somehow means not being a “real American.”

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Thanks to my friend Andrea who found this on Instagram. Do you see a phrase here you’ve heard or used?

It’s called racial microaggression.

And it’s defined as “the brief and everyday slights, insults, indignities and denigrating messages sent to people of color by well-intentioned…people who are unaware of the hidden messages being communicated.”[2]  Phrases like “What are you?” or “Where do you come from?” imply that you don’t belong.  What’s worse is when you answer honestly and the person persists, “No, where do you REALLY come from?  Where were you born?”  It’s just a constant reminder that you don’t belong.  These microaggressions don’t even have to be verbal.  They can be non-verbal like when someone looks at you cross ways or clutches their purse more tightly as they walk by.  They can be environmental like the flying of a Confederate flag or doing the tomahawk chop at a baseball game.  You might think, “well those things are trivial.  Stop being so sensitive.”  And I’ve actually heard those types of responses, but microaggression is anything but trivial and people who don’t pay attention to it are being insensitive.  In his research on racial microaggression, Dr. Sue, a leading expert on the topic, found that these tiny insults affect our mental health, create a hostile climate, perpetuate stereotypes, devalue people of color, and create inequities in education, employment, and health care.[3]  And that’s only partially how they affect us and the world around us. We need to be alert to our own microaggressions and our own unintended biases.  We all have them.  We need to be open to hearing about them and doing something to correct it when we find out.  We have to stop assuming the world around us is just “too sensitive” or “too PC” and instead do something about it.

What are you willing to do?

Change is tough.  There’s no doubt about that.  And people are more resistant to change than you might imagine.  We like to believe we’re capable of it, but many people struggle with it.  The same reason we have problems changing church culture is the same reason we are having problems changing systems of racial injustice.  We don’t like to change.  If church, if society, if LIFE is working for YOU, why bother?  It takes brave people who not only have the courage to face their own shortcomings, but to work to do something about it.  Who have to be willing to overturn the apple cart and sacrifice some of the privilege they have to make the whole world better.  Dr. Sue wrote that it’s really hard to get people to correct microaggressions because they are often unconscious of it.  They don’t even think about it because it’s not overtly racist, and often they believe they are good, moral people – which in general they probably are.  When people point out these racial microaggressions, most of us react defensively.  It creates a tension between this image we have of ourselves as a “good” person and one where we are, even unintentionally, contributing to racist systems.  That’s when you hear comments like, “Stop being so sensitive!” As if it’s everyone else’s fault for not “letting it go.”

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God gave you two ears and one tongue for a reason.

As the philosopher Epictetus said, it’s so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.  Especially in this time of racial unrest, these words are truly wise.  We need to really listen and not simply react to the moment.  I hear people responding to the Black Lives Matter movement with the phrase “All lives matter,” but that’s a defensive reaction and for most people unwittingly part of the systemic racism we are working toward eliminating.  When people say, “Black lives matter,” they are not saying other lives don’t.  They’re reminding us that Black people are human beings with an equal right to those ideals we hold dear both as Americans and as Christians – life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  Saying “all lives matter” is to misunderstand or comprehend the extent to which Black lives have NOT mattered to society.  The same thing is true of the phrase “I don’t see color.”  You should.  You should see color.  If for no other reason than to acknowledge that a person’s color is a part of who they are.  Being color-blind in this context means that you fail to comprehend how much color affects how people live, how they are treated, and how they are often denied opportunities given to other colors.  It’s a phrase said usually with the best of intentions, the person saying it usually trying to emphasize that race isn’t an important factor in their relationship, but to the person hearing it, it’s denying an important part of who they are.  I know I’ve said it in the past, thinking I was being of higher mind because of it, but realizing later that unconsciously I was part of the system that denies there is a difference in how people are treated.

Words matter.

And in our day and age, we need to be cognizant of how we use them.  We need to do some mirror-gazing and be willing to accept we still have work to do on ourselves.  No one expects us to be perfect, but we should always be working toward perfection.  It doesn’t matter how old you are, we all have room to grow.  But to me, that’s what makes life exciting!  There’s always something new to learn, always more that we can do, and always a way to make the world a better place.  Black lives matter.  And if we want to make that into something more than a banner or a logo and instead make it a reality, we all have work to do.

 

 

 

[1] According to Wikipedia, the controversy began in the 1960’s among Native American groups and gained steam in the 1990’s.  No matter how you look at it – it’s been decades! https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Washington_Redskins_name_controversy

[2] I did leave out the word “white” because I don’t think you have to be white to level a racial microaggression.  But the article is very helpful and well-written. https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/microaggressions-in-everyday-life/201010/racial-microaggressions-in-everyday-life

[3] Ibid.

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