The Power of Words
What we say matters. How we say it matters. The words we use are steeped in all that we bring with us to each engagement, whether we intentionally choose them or unconsciously use whatever comes to mind by default. I have spent a lot of time shedding my default ways of being in the world and one of my favorite ways to practice being intentional is to use different words to express myself than my default.
For example, I used to say “I am going to powwow with so-n-so” when I needed to have a quick chat with someone to get on the same page about something. I used it all the time: at work, at the gym, volunteering, at home, at the dojo, running errands, dancing, everywhere. One day, a friend told me that what I thought of as a fun shorthand descriptor was actually a flippant use of a term that holds deep cultural significance for their first-nations people. I wanted to stop (unconsciously) disrespecting first-nations folks, so I stopped using it and tried alternatives: huddle, parlay, touch-in, sit-down, conference, chit-chat. My current favorite seems to be conference, although huddle is a close second.
Through intentional practice I changed my default.
The same method has also been useful in replacing gendered terms in my default speech. My focus the last few years on gender identity equity was spurred-on by my experience in the dance community. In my local contra dance scene, the terms ladies and gents are used to identify a dancer’s position in the pairing relative to their partner. The connection to a dancer’s actual gender is mostly arbitrary as women-identifying humans often dance the gent role and men-identifying humans also dance the ladies role at most dances. Dance callers routinely explain in their opening lesson that “these terms are arbitrary” and “anyone can dance with anyone.”
Despite those pronouncements, the queer and non-binary folks in our community have told me they do not feel welcome at dances where gendered terms are used. They do not feel like they belong in that space because when they dance down the line presenting as female in the gent role or presenting as male in the ladies role, other community members refuse to accept their chosen dance role. Well-meaning folks assume confusion and try to direct them to the “correct” place. Less well-meaning folks refuse to dance with someone appearing in the “wrong role” or express their disapproval through physically aggression.
I want my queer and non-binary friends to feel welcome at dances. I want them to have access to the opportunity for joy, community, and healthy physical touch that contra dance affords all the straight, cis, white people. And I want all dancers to disconnect the role terms from their assumption of a dancer’s gender.
This seems totally within reach for the contra community since the gendered terms are touted as arbitrary anyway. And the tide does seem to be turning. Callers around the country have been exploring various gender-neutral terms at contra dances for years. At the monthly Remix contra dance that I run with my partner, we have used exclusively non-gendered terms for the last couple years. And the local traditional weekly dance began to use gender-neutral terms every other week before Covid arrived and all dances were cancelled.
Expanding the feeling of welcome for queer and non-binary community members is amazing. And it is easier to nurture that change when we use robins and larks instead of ladies and gents because we are no longer using words that formerly meant the very thing they currently describe. Through intentional practice at our dance, the Remix community has changed our default and that is helping to spread the change through the wider contra community.
But I not only want the entire dance community to feel welcome and wanted at dances, I want all the humans who do not fit into the male or female binary to be fully seen and recognized everywhere, whatever their gender expression. In their workplaces, at the gym, playing outside, in the Library, on the bus, at the grocery store. Everywhere.
To further that cause, I spent time reflecting on my default language and identifying the ways my word choice reinforced default gender norms. I sought out resources and listened to queer and non-binary folks talk about their experience in a society where the male or female binary is the default. And I made deliberate changes to the words I use. Instead of mankind, I say human kind. Instead of observing “that lady looks happy” when I describe a stranger, I say “that human looks happy” or “that person looks happy.” Instead of “hey guys!” I greet people with “hey folks!” or "hey y'all!"
It takes practice. And the more I practiced, the less I had to think about it. My default changed.
This journey probably sounds familiar if you are one of the many humans currently working to uncover and dismantle your own racism. And it should because it is the same process. Looking deeply into myself to shine a light on how my default way of being in the world maintains one part of the status quo is critical to changing that default. It is also practice for looking at my contribution to other parts of the status quo.
I have heard a lot of folks recently advising everyone to “get comfortable being uncomfortable” in our anti-racism work. I’m there. I am ready and willing to be uncomfortable and I have a lot of practice while working other equity issues and through my martial training. What I’m looking for now is to get uncomfortable with being comfortable. I don’t want to just poke my head up out of my comfort from time to time when I’m doing my anti-racism work. I want to change my default. I want to nurture an instinct of unease with the comfort of white supremacy.
So while I am using the same words of comfort and discomfort, reordering them changes the focus of my intention.
About 10 years ago I was watching a re-run of a 1980’s stand-up comedy show. It was hilarious. I was laughing non-stop until the part where the comedian started talking about the faggots. He said the word faggot so many times. I couldn’t tell you what else he talked about in those few minutes because I was deeply uncomfortable and slightly shaken. My whole life I have known that word equals hate, so when I heard it used so casually, as part of the status quo, I was shocked.
Years before that comedy show re-run, I was playing an Italian card game with my extended family. My uncle played a card with a human riding a horse and proclaimed that he was playing “the Prancing Faggot!” Most of the family laughed, but I remember my mouth actually falling open. Hearing such a hurtful word come out of my otherwise loving uncle’s mouth shocked me. I was in my late teens at the time and didn’t feel confident standing up in front of my whole family, so I said timidly “Can we please stop with the hate? Let’s use a different word.” There was an uncomfortable silence, then the game moved on without a reoccurrence of that word.
My uncle never used that word in front of me again, although I have no idea what he said when I wasn’t around. We never talked about it. I assume my tiny interruption of that one card game on that one visit did not change any of his beliefs about fem-presenting male humans or gay people. But I was definitely uncomfortable with his comfortable display of anti-gay bigotry.
Just like my auto-objection to hearing a gay slur, I want to hone my hatedar to pick up all the other ways default language reinforces the comfort of what has been the racial status quo. Deliberately using non-gender terms to describe my fellow humans expanded my overall perspective. It allowed me to recognize my own humanity more deeply, and to see more clearly how my word choice was denying the humanity of others. I want to apply the same practice to my anti-racism work, so I can become equally uncomfortable with the status quo of racism. Changing our words won't solve the problem by itself, but it is one useful way to practice.
Words matter. Choose wisely. Through intentional practice, we can change the default.
Information and Inspiration:
When a new student comes to the dojo it’s inevitable that they will hit way too hard in almost every drill. As a small sized human, I found that super irritating (especially because that new student usually outweighs me by a significant amount). For a long time I thought they were all just being jerks; trying to prove their toughness or show off what skill they already had. Sometimes that is the case, but very rarely. As my skill level grew, I began to recognize that most of the time the new person is actually just scared.
They are afraid of getting hurt. Or afraid of not winning. Or afraid of hitting other people. Whatever the narrative creating the fear, that fear is the only thing they can see once they step onto the training floor. To compound the issue, new folks also tend to be largely unaware of their body. They can’t see their partner through their fear and they have no idea where their limbs are in time and space. So they hit too hard.
This phenomenon is not unique to the fighting arts. I have been screamed at by a human experiencing a mental health crisis while I waited for the manifestation of their trauma to subside so they could see I was trying to help. And in fact this behavior is not even unique to humans. An animal caught in a trap will lash out in fear at a human trying to help.
This week I observed this same fear blindness in the police at a protest. They were decked-out in body armor complete with battle helmet and face shield, carrying weapons of varying degrees of deadliness. And they were afraid. I could see it in the posture of their bodies and the way they brandished their weapons. They were afraid of being perceived as anything other than tough and imposing. They were afraid of showing any sign of their humanity to the angry chanting crowd. And the great irony is that they also wanted desperately for their humanity to be seen.
A few officers came to less crowded sections of the fence to talk with protestors. The one who came to talk to my group told us they wanted us to know they were human just like us, and they were in this job because they want to help people. They explained they were only out tonight to protect the people inside the justice center. They were standing behind a twelve foot fence in their body armor and with all their weapons to protect the inmates in the jail from the protestors.
We had follow-up questions.
We asked if they lived in the area, and the officer explained they would never want to live in the community they police because what if they run into someone they arrested at the grocery store? It was clear they were afraid of being accountable to a member of their own community for their behavior at work. They also explained they have never seen racism in their police department and they attended a 10-hour equity training where they all learned about privilege. It was clear they were afraid of being dismissed as a “racist and therefore bad person.”
We had more follow-up questions.
We brought up the overwhelming body of evidence that racial bias exits in policing generally and in this city specifically. We asked why they think communities of color are disproportionately harmed by police practices if they have never seen racism in their ranks. And then they announced they were going to step away from the fence because they no longer felt safe. It was clear they were uncomfortable that we were simultaneously acknowledging their humanity and also challenging their claim of non-participation in white supremacy. It's clear they were afraid of looking at themselves and considering their own contribution to that system.
And their fear was all they could see.
And I understand. Police are routinely trained to expect attack at all times and to see the community they serve as inherently threatening. Seeing through that fear to observe what is actually happening (to discern a real threat) requires a skill my martial arts system calls confront. Confront is not the same thing as displaying a confrontational attitude. It’s also not the same thing as courage, although it is related. Confront is a combination of courage and the ability to remain fully present in any situation that presses your buttons. It’s a skill that takes time to develop and requires deliberate practice.
For students of Mo Duk Pai, most of that practice is spending time in circumstances that scare us. Slowly at first, with our teachers and training partners offering just enough challenge to require that we reach beyond our current comfort level, and not so much that we are completely overwhelmed. Over time our ability to stand in the face of that challenge without losing ourselves grows and a greater and greater challenge is offered. It’s very effective and rewarding training, and as your skill grows the challenges become more and more personal.
And that’s when it gets really juicy.
In order to practice getting my buttons pressed, I have to know what presses my buttons. And I have to know why. Not why someone else would be uncomfortable by that offering. Not why “any reasonable person” would be afraid in those circumstances. I have to know why MY fight/flight/freeze switches are getting flipped. And the answer is almost never the thing that is obvious; it's deeper than that.
To get to the bottom of my own fear I have to explore my internal world and get to know all its nooks and crannies. The most profound and effective method of internal exploration I know is my Taiji practice of deep listening. It's a practice of being as fully present as possible with my thoughts, feelings, and physical body. It's a practice of bringing to my own attention parts of myself that were previously unconscious in order to identify the narratives underneath my fear and other emotions. It allows me to own those narratives, ask how they served my past self, and decide whether they continue to serve me presently.
It’s challenging work. It’s rewarding work. It’s amazingly healing and powerful work. The more I acknowledge all the parts of myself, the more complete I become. The more whole I am, the more of me is present in every moment, including the most challenging or frightening. And there is no short-cut; I just have to do the work. Just like dismantling racism and white supremacy. There is no short-cut there either; I just have to do the work.
We all do.
We all need to identify and unwind the deepest narratives that drive us to perpetuate our current systems of oppression. Those same narratives will not serve us in a future world built on systems of equality instead of systems of superiority and supremacy. And the police have to do the work as well. So while we are working to craft new systems of community safety, we should provide different training to our police, so they can – at the very least – begin to see past their fear of the communities they are supposed to serve.
Information and Inspiration:
We still have to do the laundry
When I was in my late teens I wanted to change the world. Bush Jr had just been elected to his first term and my friends and I thought it was the end of the world. It’s almost funny to reflect today on the dread I felt during that time considering the White House occupant of the most recent three years. My friends and I channeled our angst into action, attending protests and writing letters to members of Congress and local political officials. Then nothing happened. So we formed a group and called ourselves ONCAP, the "Organization for Non-Complacency Among the People.” Our aim was to coordinate resistance efforts with other humans so we could present a unified message.
We recognized there is strength in numbers, but we didn't quite understand how to capitalize on that potential with any sort of efficiency. What we should have done was seek out an already established organization doing the work we wanted done and add our voices and time and energy to their ongoing efforts. That did not occur to a single one of us, however, so instead we met a couple times a week, continued protesting, and tried to start a newsletter. We talked to people we already knew and asked them to join with us in action. Unsurprisingly, we were not effective operating on our own, essentially in a vacuum, without an expansive social network and with no readership for our newsletter. We kept trying anyway.
Then I accepted a job with the federal government. During orientation I learned that I was no longer able to exercise my first amendment rights publicly to the same degree I had been. I could speak out on legislative issues, but could not comment on candidates running for partisan office. I could not fundraise. I could not canvas. I could not speak publicly about things that affected my agency without first going through the media relations officer for my state (who at one point was a human named Panick - the irony was not lost upon me).
With the restrictions of my public service, I couldn’t keep ONCAP going and it didn’t continue without me. So there I sat for the next 14 years, red tape over my mouth, writing anonymous letters to Congress, making donations, and working internally to protect employee rights as a union steward.
During that time I became passionate about social justice issues. I learned what privilege is and identified some of my own contributions to systemic racism. I started my personal work to uncover my unconscious racism, own it, and learn how to choose new behaviors. I have made a lot of changes in my life while working to dismantle my own racism. But the one thing I haven’t been doing is talking about it publicly. I left my government job in 2017, but I didn’t leave the practice of being quiet.
I could have shared my process more widely before now. I could have reached out to the friends and family not already onboard and asked them to please join me in doing this very important work. Working silently was where I have continued to fail, and it took George Floyd's death for me to realize I could take that red tape off of my mouth.
Doing my work out in the open is the new change I’m making now. I am calling all the professional organizations I belong to and all the vendors currently providing my business services and asking what they are doing to dismantle the systemic racism within their organization and in our industry as a whole. I am calling my family and asking where they are in their personal journey and asking them to begin looking at themselves or to continue the work they are already doing. And fortunately, I am not alone.
There has been a Great Awakening across the country. Many white Americans have finally come to realize the problem is not just "a few bad apples" in the police force; it’s an entire system designed to punish some people just for existing. White folks everywhere are asking what they should do to help actually abolish the slavery of black Americans that was supposed to have ended with the 13th amendment.
If you are one of the newly arrived, welcome into a little more awareness. The journey you are beginning is long and challenging, and also unbelievably rewarding (as personal growth tends to be). And if you're feeling overwhelmed by the prospect of identifying your internal racist narratives, unlearning your racist behaviors, and taking down the institutions of racism in our society, then realize you don't have to figure out how to solve the whole problem on your own. There are many people and countless organizations that have been doing this work for decades. Do your personal work, and go find those already established organizations doing the work you want done and add your voice, your time, your money, and your energy to their ongoing efforts.
The demands for change in the last two weeks are starting to work. Last week Los Angeles redirected $150 million from the police budget into health, education, and other community programs. The city of DC painted “Black Lives Matter” across two blocks of 16th street leading up to the White House. More people are registering to vote and talking about electing leaders who will take down the old systems. More black voices are being heard and recognized. And this is just the beginning.
Which is why I want to encourage a long-term perspective. We are trying to change systems that have been around for hundreds of years and were deliberately designed to do exactly what they have been: keep black and brown folks intimidated and under control. We need to be out in the street with raised voices demanding justice and legislative changes. We need to boycott institutions that refuse to change their policies and practices. We need to write letters and make phone calls and post on social media. And we also need to do the dishes and get the laundry done.
To accomplish real system-wide change this movement cannot be just a break from regular life to demand justice for two or three tragic deaths before we go back home, order dinner, and Netflix 'n chill. This has to be a lifestyle change. We have to completely change our societal systems to remove the racism, and we have to completely change our life systems to sustain our momentum for demanding these changes until they actually happen.
I think people are ready. Books on racism and white privilege are sold out all over the place. Groups of white folks are watching documentaries, listening to TED talks, and committing to challenging self-reflection. Churches are speaking out against the poisonous narratives perpetuated by conservative white evangelical institutions. We already changed our whole life routine when Covid hit, so why not continue to adapt our lives for the extremely worthy cause of finally ending slavery for real.
So wherever you are in your personal process of reckoning with your racism and systemic racism in America, take the time you need to process. Grieve, get mad, read books, post online, do all the things. Then, as soon as you can hold on to one more thing: figure out how to show up for the black community while living your everyday life. We all need to include community activism as part of our "regular life" so we can march downtown demanding that black lives matter and then go home and do the laundry.
Information and Inspiration:
I want to live in a world different than the one cultivated by those who came before me. I want every human to have access and opportunity to thrive in whatever way best suits them while allowing for the health, peace and well-being of others. I want humans to live, work, and play in greater concert with nature. I want to stop the cycles of oppression and trauma perpetuated by our malfunctioning societal systems and create space for healing and growth instead. I want a lot of things to shift, and I want to help shift them.
Like many people, I was sad and angry when I learned about George Flyod’s tragic death at the hands of people who abuse their position of public trust. This is yet another human of color murdered by humans of authority who did not recognize his life as worthy of their consideration; who did not see him as their fellow human being. And unfortunately George Floyd is only the latest in a long list of humans of color murdered for similar reasons and in similar circumstances that I have seen in just my lifetime. Every time it happens again my heart aches for how preventable and how pointless the loss of each life is.
This week through my sadness I also saw a glimmer of hope in the number of people asking for change. I am encouraged by the protests because they are widespread and highly visible. Tuesday evening saw protests in all 50 states. That is something I don’t remember ever seeing before in my lifetime. Civil unrest and demonstration in the streets are nothing new to this country or my city, but this time feels different to me. This time it seems like many of the white people out there demanding change alongside their fellow humans of color also want to participate in creating that change. It no longer seems sufficient to ask someone else to take care of solving these problems.
Perhaps the timing was finally right. With workplaces and schools closed due to the global pandemic, maybe this is just the outlet folks needed for all their pent-up angst. I know the Covid isolation awoke in me a furious desire to do something to help fix the world. Perhaps the widespread pandemic messaging that “we are in this together” and “we will get through this together” really sank in for some folks. I would like to think this is a tipping point for this country. I’m going to let it be a tipping point for me.
This week I have watched multiple online panel discussions where all the panelists were humans of color. This week they were easy to find, whereas before it took a concerted effort to find the same opportunity. This week I have seen an increase in online discussions between white folk about white privilege and dismantling systemic racism. This week I participated in a Facebook discussion about race for the first time with two humans I have never met who are also white. This week when Oregon’s white governor, along with a city commissioner and state senator of color, held a press conference about the protests in Oregon I heard them talk about actual actions they were actually taking to unravel the systems of racial oppression in state government.
I am feeling hopeful about what’s happening in my little corner of the world.
Unfortunately, this week also included peaceful protestors brutally attacked without provocation by police in multiple cities. This week some people dismissed the entire protest movement when riots occurred instead of recognizing that looting is not nearly as horrendous as the decades of racial injustice we have all been silently acquiescing to. This week the President called on state governors to use the national guard to stamp-out protests so they wouldn’t “look like a bunch of jerks.”
I am enraged, disappointed, and disgusted with those reactions to the reasonable request for human dignity. But that’s not all: I have seen this before. And not just with social justice or politics, but with every other part of life. This kind of reaction is a pattern that I suspect has been playing out for as long as our society has existed. The people who will inherit this world want to live in it differently, and the old guard who have been running it for a while do not want to agree to change the system because that will make them wrong.
Fortunately, it doesn’t actually matter whether they are wrong or not. That is the great hidden power of being right without attachment to the other guy being wrong. Whether the founders of our systems were wrong to create them or the current stewards of those systems are wrong to perpetuate them has absolutely no bearing on my desire and determination to change them. I see what is happening right now and I want to cultivate something different.
In America’s case, I would argue that a lot of the people in positions of power right now are very wrong about a great many things. Those among them who cling desperately to the broken and unjust systems are also desperately playing the not-wrong game (in addition to other games of power and privilege). What they don’t realize is that won't actually help them because change is inevitable. Whether it's brought about by the current protest movement or due to global economic or climate collapse, our current systems are unsustainable and have been fraying at the seams for a long time. They can keep wasting their energy trying to avoid being wrong. I don’t need to play that game; I’ll be over here changing the world.
Information and Inspiration:
Jaydra is a human in-process, working to make the world a better place. Sharing thoughts, feelings, and observations about the human experience.