Language is the foundation of our communication, and it is through language that we define our thoughts and beliefs. Words are the tools we use to shape our reality and build our understanding of the world around us. But what happens when the language we use is not our own? What happens when we use words that have been imposed upon us by colonizers, oppressors, and white supremacists?
This is the story of these white words and how they continue to distort our understanding of the world — for the worse.
Silently shaping our understanding of the world
You might be wondering, “what are white words?” Well, they’re the terms and expressions that come from the dominant culture — the European colonizer. White words are a corrupting influence on our perception of reality and justice, shaping our understanding of the world in ways that privilege white people and exclude people of color. White words are insidious because they often carry with them assumptions and biases that reinforce the status quo, promoting inequality and perpetuating systemic oppression.
For example, when we use the word “criminal,” we often conjure images of people of color, even though white people are equally as likely to commit crimes.
And consider the word “civilized.” This word is loaded with the notion that the European colonial powers were the epitome of civilization, while all other cultures were savage and uncivilized. This false notion has been used to justify countless atrocities committed against indigenous peoples, people of color, and other marginalized groups throughout history.
Or “tribal.” This term is often used to describe indigenous peoples and communities, but it carries with it the assumption that these communities are primitive and unorganized. In reality, many indigenous peoples have rich cultures and complex social systems that have been in place for thousands of years.
The use of white words also corrupts our understanding of justice. Words like “law and order” and “tough on crime” have been used to justify the disproportionate use of force against people of color, the demonization of communities of color, and the denial of basic rights to people of color. The term “illegal immigrant” is another example of white words that corrupt our perception of justice, as it dehumanizes people of color and makes it easier to justify the denial of their rights.
White words are white thoughts
Orwell understood that language matters far more than we give it credit for. The war on perception goes far beyond these less subtle examples, and in various ways encompasses all language derived from the oppressor. For as long as we speak his white, male, cisheteronormative, English language, we have to recognize the corrupting influence its white words have on us. By using language that has been imposed upon us by oppressors, we are putting our minds in chains and perpetuating the systemic racism that has been used to deny people of color rights and dignity.
Shalawam to a new future
It is up to us to reject these white words, to create new language that reflects our true reality, and to build a world in which justice is truly blind and all people are treated with dignity and respect.
I propose that the first utterance in this new language be a beautiful word from our ancestors, shalawam:
Hello, fellow human.
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