Sticks and Stones: The Power of Words

March 25, 2014

Mary Johnson-Butterworth is a longtime social justice activist who has been on staff at the YWCA's Camp Anytown, funded by NCCJ, for 18 years. She has volunteered as a diversity trainer/facilitator in both corporate and school settings throughout Birmingham. Mary currently works as Director of Communications for First Teachers @ Home.
 
To me, the most destructive of old adages is, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” We only have to look at the teen suicide rate to recognize the most final and harmful effects of either strategically or very carelessly placed words. Words have the power to kill—not as reliably as a bullet to the brain, but more often. 
 
For about 15 years, I have been a facilitator for the Heritage Panel program, first sponsored by NCCJ and, for the past few years, by the YWCA. The insight and openness of the middle and high school student Heritage Panelists never cease to amaze me.  
 
At one point in the program, students discuss the use of words that they agree have the power to hurt. Students discuss many words, and the only one of these that I cannot write is known in politically correct circles as “the n-word.” The current use of this word among African-Americans as a term fostering friendship and entertainment, while it is still used by whites and others as the worst kind of bigotry, seems to defy explanation. But a phenomenon known as internalized oppression may be, at least in part, responsible for the rehabbing of both the n-word and the term “bitch” or “biotch,” used playfully and often by women when addressing their female friends. 
 
For centuries, Caucasians, beginning with slave masters, have bullied African-Americans by spewing the venomous n-word, just as males have forever relegated females to canine status with the word bitch. Unbelievably, constant abuse of one group by another group for years causes the targeted group to buy into what the dominant group persists in saying about them, even when the dominant group is absent. For example, men have insisted for all time that women are weak, and I might not trust a fellow female to perform a task because I might now concur that we are weak. These rehabbed terms, such as the n-word and bitch are examples of blacks and women respectively adopting the language of their oppressors because they yearn for these all-too-familiar and inevitable terms to somehow gain comfortable, positive meaning for them. 
 
Other words which students refer to are “dyke,” negative slang for a lesbian, “fag,” negative slang for a male homosexual, or “retard,” slang applied to anyone who might be in special education or just to anyone engaging in what the name-caller deems inappropriate behavior. According to students, the word “gay,” an appropriate description when attributed to homosexuals, continues to be used incorrectly to simply denote anything negative, while “wetback” is slang utilized to oppress those of Hispanic or Latino ethnicity.  And what is an “illegal alien”? Someone arriving from Mars? White people are labeled “redneck” and “white trash.” Southern whites are also victims of internalized oppression, embracing redneck as a badge of honor and to honor one's ancestors. These are just some examples of hurtful, abusive rhetoric which, when eliminated from the vocabulary of Heritage Panelists, can contagiously change the culture of an entire school. Heritage Panelists learn to challenge stereotyping and prejudice and to champion justice in Birmingham-area schools. I believe in the YWCA Heritage Panel program because I watch positive change happen right before my eyes.   

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