Emancipate Our Language
In society, in communities, in families, in friendships, in relationship, and most crucially—in classrooms—words matter. As abolitionists in pursuit of communal consciousness, our words become seeds of subjugation or follicles of freedom within our classroom communities. When many of us were children, particularly after an instance of name-calling, we were reminded of Alexander William Kinglake's rhyme:
Sticks and stones may break my bones, But words will never hurt me.
What was an attempt to increase our resiliency to verbal hostility, by inviting us to take on the assumption that words are powerless, was in fact one of the earliest dishonesties of life. Words hurt, because words matter—inflicting damage in our hearts, impressing suffering in our souls, and imprinting harm on our brains. And none of us, particularly oppressed people in this nation, are insusceptible from the emotionally devastating, cognitively impacting effect of words. Oppressed people have been coerced to navigate the intentionally destructive, calcula-tedly offensive, and purposefully derisive use of words by folx in power, words that we can designate, on account of the 1942 Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire decision, as "fighting words."9 The court ruled that the First Amendment does not protect fighting words—words that not only humiliate but also seek to subordinate a person on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, economic status, and other identity markers—because said words have an explicit propensity to ignite acts of violence. Employing the court's theory, educators and school leaders must be cognizant of not only fighting words but also traumatizing words—words that overwhelm, or threaten to overwhelm, a student's ability to navigate a community by causing humiliation, helplessness, pain, grief, confusion, and/or loss.
One might be tempted to read this, and contend that this approach is hypersensitive because students need to develop "tough skin," a refrain often uttered by educators and school leaders who privilege a capacity of free speech, unchecked tone, unobstructed intention, and unapologetic impact as a warrant to loosely use language. Instead, educators and school leaders should read this approach as a critique of positional power politics—amplified by racial and gender oppression—thus holding us accountable for intentionally using language as not to traumatize students who are commonly, but not universally, structurally defenseless in our teaching and learning communities.10 Thus, our language must be emancipated because of what it does "to the addressee, how it assigns him or her a place in the social symbolic structure, but also by the way it forces the address to recognize the speaker's authority."11 This is why, right from the start, I want to be clear that our concern is not exploring whether or not words matter, nor whether language has power or not. Our concern emphatically underscores that words matter, and language has power, so as abolitionists, we have a responsibility and burden to emancipate our language from being sources of trauma, and a reification of positional power politics in our school communities. An abolitionist approach contends that while words matter in their capacity to traumatize, words equivalently matter, for educators and school leaders, in their capacity to heal and to reconstruct, when we choose our words with intentionality. How often have you stood in front of a school community, teachers, students, and families using words without intention, reinforcing power and privilege? How often have you said something, and within a matter of moments from those words exiting your mouth, needed nothing more than to recant every single word? How often have you had your own words repeated, copied and pasted, or even replayed, forcing you to reconcile the damaging impact you affected? As a school leader, how often have you been in complicit in sanctioning— through silence—white educators to communicate to students, colleagues, and families using language without intention, positioning themselves as the centering power of rhetoric, neglecting to regulate the use of "fighting words" and traumatizing words?
As part of a teaching residency listening and learning tour, I found myself in Boston—a city I hadn't visited since graduating Harvard—on a cold, sunny Wednesday, twenty-four days before Ahmaud Arbery was killed while jogging in Glynn County, Georgia, and forty-three days before our network of schools closed our buildings in response to the COVID-19 global pandemic. I was there with a group of colleagues—our director of talent, a Black man, and the managing director of our teaching residency, a white woman—visiting a neighborhood-based charter school full of more than 300 Black and brown elementary students, and a throng of white, well-meaning educators, and a scattering of Black and brown educators, mostly residents. After a full day of observations and small-group sessions, we were invited to attend an afternoon staff meeting and professional development session. It started as it would in essentially any school around the nation—snacks being distributed, kids moving to-and-fro trying to figure out where to go, teachers chatting in grade-teams, a review of the day's agenda, a round of glows about a lesson that was presented, feedback on how the week was progressing, and a batch of announcements from the leadership team. Then, it was turned over to the teachers for announcements, and that's when a white, well-meaning teacher stands in front of us with an abundance of anxious energy adorned in all black—shirt, pants, and shoes—as if she was in mourning. She begins her remarks, "So, let me start by saying I'm so nervous because this is really exciting for me because I am so honored to be the chair of Black Lives Matters Week."
I immediately made eyes with our director of talent, our teaching residency-managing director, and the only lead teacher of color at the school, and we all grin while dropping our heads because we knew where it was going.
She continued with glee,
Now, I need your help to make this a success. We need you to invite really successful Black people that you know to talk to our students. They [the really successful Black people] don't have to be President Obama or Beyonce or anything like that; they can be anybody, an accountant you know, or a doctor, or a neighbor. We just want these students to see really good, really successful Black people. There has been so much progress in America for Black people and they need to see it. Oh! And I really, really have to thank my committee for all of their hard work. If you can think of anything else we can be doing to make this week special for them, please let me know.
Multiplying the problematic moment, the overwhelming majority of her colleagues, including school leadership, looked on with smiles and nodding heads as nonverbal cues of affirmation. All I could think to myself was, here we go again—another white, well-meaning educator using problematic, and oppression-adjacent language while being entranced by the romanticisms of talking about Black folx, Black culture, and Black progress in America. Little did I know that only twenty-four days later, her words—"they" and "these" and "them" referencing Black and brown students—would ring vociferously as a public reckoning on racism erupted in streets across the nation with protests underscoring the dignity of Black folx and inviting the reconstruction of a America where an equitable democracy would allow us to have our identity validated beyond the use of pronouns. I couldn't have predicted that in a pedagogical era where culturally relevant pedagogy books—which I contend is a more palatable derivative of "culturally competent"; remember that?—are on bookshelves, in tote bags, and on professional development scopes and sequences as schools rummage for ways to talk about America's original sin of racism, that white, well-meaning educators were still conflating cultural relevance with individual progress. It confounded me to hear a white educator use public rhetoric in declaring, "They don't have to be President Obama or Beyonce or anything like that; they can be anybody ..." as if she was explaining her fish order at the seafood counter. Words matter. Language matters. Rhetoric matters. Paralleling the sociocultural and sociopolitical progress of Black folx to the global celebrity of entertainers and athletes, or the election of Barack Obama, without acknowledging the complicated, systematic racist sociopolitics of public life for all Black folx, including the celebrities and notable personalities, is negligent rhetoric.
Against the complicated backdrop of a nation plagued by "alternative facts" and political rhetoric more oppressive than Bull Connor, white educators and school leaders have a responsibility and burden of ensuring language and words that respect the inherent dignity and identity and lived experiences of Black students within the community. The question, then, is how can white educators—and some Black ones, too—emancipate their language? One of the ways, seemingly straightforward and uncomplicated, is to abolish the use of pronouns with exclusionary, oppressive implications—they, them, these, and those—without first giving dignity to the collective group of folx we are addressing, discoursing about, or discoursing with. I am realistic enough to know that educators, as most English-speaking citizens of this country, use pronouns with as much thought as people give to using doorknobs. But, when well-meaning, good-intentioned educators, particularly white educators, casually use "them" and "they" pronouns, it creates a rigid dichotomy between themselves and the students within their care, reinforcing a subjugating power-politics that is endemic to classrooms. While we all bear this responsibility to emancipate our language, our words, and our rhetoric as part of the pathway to emancipating our mindsets, white teachers and educators have an added burden of emancipating themselves of any word, or phrase, or rhetoric that intentionally or unintentionally reinforces a Jim Crow dynamic of dichotomies—us and them. Communally conscious educators use classroom discourse of all forms—from the mundane to the epic, from threshold greetings to cold calls, from turn and talks to Socratic method—to abolish oppressive language, which is unfortunately such an embedded aspect of routine discourse in schools and classrooms that it can be difficult for some educators, and school leaders, to even notice. Thus, from the mundane—the unintentionally oppressive uses of "they" and "them" pronouns—to the substantial—our use of words that degrade the inherently dignity of a human—an abolitionist approach to radically humanizing our classrooms as a transformation of trauma is to reject rhetorical oppression that reinforces a privileged, power-centered view of the world. When educators, even the ones we honor and love and respect within our school communities, use oppressive and subjugating language in any and all forms, it not only harms the individual, classroom, or the community but also elongates a linguistic history of subjugation and oppression that has been inherent to the Black experience in America and its institutions, particularly in public education.
Are pronouns for pronouns-sake the issue? Of course not. But what seems clear enough is that as we advance our claims of justice, equity, and anti-racism in hope to radically humanize, and effectively abolish, student experiences with trauma, it has become impossible, however mundanely they are in our rhetoric, to continue ignoring the damaging implications of pronouns as default indicators for group identities, particularly for group identities for folx who have an oppressed history, which is just about every non-white, non-European group in this nation. Every struggle of an oppressed people, particularly Black people, has an integrated history of overt rhetorical discrimination and verbal violence, which elevates the significance of taking our words seriously. By using, permitting, or ignoring language—with ignoring being the most common approach as not to offend those who use or permit oppressive rhetoric—school leaders are adding to that collective experience. In this sense, racial crises provide school leaders with an opportunity to interrogate, within themselves and within their communities, the othering happening nonchalantly and formally in school leadership and grade-team meetings, data-dives and professional development, and even in sports competitions and school celebrations through language, words, and rhetoric. As Dr. Wizdom Powell from University of Connecticut, Health Disparities Institute notes in conversation with Andrew Grant-Thomas on the othering of Black folx:
... to be othered is to be denied the fullness of one's humanity. It's about reminding people, either by the barriers we put up in social spaces or the barriers to opportunities to advance our well-being, about saying through words or actions, that "you're not one of us."12
As education, our classrooms are social spaces, and the language we use—inclusive of how we use pronouns as a power and identity politics—becomes a barrier we put up that positions ourselves as the ideal, the center, the focal point, and our students as subordinate objects relative to "us." When a white male basketball coach casually exclaims of his predominantly Black basketball team, "These boys could be playing much better than they are," what subconscious trauma is being imposed by "these" and "boys," given the historical racial tenor of Black men being called boys? When a white female educator cordially says of her primarily Black classroom, "You know I just love them, and their hugs," what amount of trauma is being reinforced by the othering politic of "them" and "their"? When educators unthoughtfully use possessive pronouns like "my" in signaling love for a classroom of beautiful kids, "my kids don't act like that," how might that possessiveness reify a power politic, particularly if a white educator is speaking about a group of Black and brown students?
One challenge that complicates the abolition of our oppressive use of pronouns, particularly "them" and "they," is the widened use of the two pronouns in the singular form as gender identities for non-binary—identifying as neither male nor female, and/or non-gender-conforming folx. I find myself against this wall, wrestling with how to hold in relationship the use of pronouns for all of my queer, non-white, non-binary, agender, and/ or transgender students whose intersectionality is at the heart of lived experience, and abolish the oppressive implications that come along with "they" and "them." For all of our intersectional students, "they" functions as a means of power, protest, and resistance in navigating everyday life, and is therefore crucial to honor the function of gender-specific language. Crucial to any abolitionist project of emancipating ourselves from oppressive uses of language is recognizing that the abolition of "they" and "them" will inevitably impact how educators communicate with Black queer folx. Therefore, this radically humanizing response of emancipating our language invites Black folx with intersectional queer identities to create new, innovative identity markers that reject all pronouns, but never rejecting human dignity—a task of resistance and reconstruction.
Not only can aspiring abolitionists emancipate ourselves of the oppressive use of pronouns, but we can also commit to talking about systemic racism, not personal agency. The system or the person, who is to blame? Abolitionists committed to communal consciousness must not wrestle with that question relative to the consequential traumas of sociocultural, sociopolitical, and socioeconomic crises in the nation. Students suffering anxiety as a result of mass shootings in teaching and learning spaces is not the result of an individual, but the result of a system of poor gun control laws, allowing individuals of all socioemotional states access to unnecessary militarized weapons. Children detained in chains and cages, being maltreated at the southern border is not the blame of a singular individual, but the result of systemic xenophobia, antediluvian immigration laws, and white-supremacist nationalism. Black bodies—male bodies, female bodies, and trans bodies—being disproportionately over-policed, brutalized, and murdered routinely while being recorded by phones and body-cameras alike is not an individual problem, but a systemic consequence of America's chattel slave legacy. Black folx having to justify our experiences bird-watching in Central Park, exercising in a corporate gym, barbecuing in public gathering spaces, spray-painting our properties, selling water on the sidewalk, napping in the common area of our university dorm, and waiting patiently to pick up our children is not the result of any individual "Karen," but is the result of a systemic undervaluing of Black identity, rooted in a constitutional amendment recognizing us as 3/5ths a person.
Against that backdrop, crises of all proportions that have sociocultural, socioemotional, sociopolitical, socioeconomic, and socioenvironmental impact on our teaching and learning communities provide us as abolitionist leaders with an opportunity to talk to students and educators about the sin of systemic racism against Black folx, not the white wonder with individual Black agency. When white school leaders neglect the responsibility to talk about the function of racism as embedded within the fabric of sociopolitical and sociocultural structures—education, criminal justice, employment, income, housing, food, and healthcare—or remain silent about the history of structural racism, it gives white educators the permission to use language presuming that "really good, really successful" Black folx are exempt from the impact of racism. The teaching, learning, and classroom culture in cities and towns where structural racism goes unpacked, undiscussed, and even unacknowledged is the byproduct of the systemic privilege of whiteness, not the individual racism of KKK'ers, blue-lives-matter'ers, white-lives-matter'ers, all-lives-matter'ers, and make-America-great-again'ers—though each of those individual groups is an embodiment of the hegemony within the system itself. As such, an abolitionist approach to radically humanizing trauma is to resist the imposition of white-supremacist influence by acknowledging that even those we exclaim as notable—King,
X, Morrison, Hughes, Ali, Angelou, Baldwin, Franklin, Winfrey, Obama, and Knowles-Carter—despite their personal agency of diligence, effort, aptitude, and charisma, existed and exist within a structure of systemic racism. When school leaders focus rhetoric on the individual agency of our students, namely Black students, without naming that Black folx as a community exist within a structure designed to dismantle our effort and aptitude, school leaders perpetuate the oft-told alternative fact of an individual American Dream while ignoring the oft-experienced Black communal reality of an American Nightmare. To emancipate Black students of the trauma of assuming that individual agency, individual ethic, individual decency, individual codeswitching, and individual compliance are the panacea to an emancipated life, abolitionists—aspiring and arrived—have to emancipate our rhetoric by centering systemic racism as a harm that individualism does not alleviate.
Immediately after graduate school, I joined an Independent boarding school in New England as the only—yes, only—Black male on staff, with a campus of more than 600 students and more than 70 staff members. I was dean of student life, a faculty member in the Upper School, and a dorm parent for a group of beautifully rambunctious, compassionately comical, and radically curious boys from all over the world. Before this, I had taught in two Independent day schools, where I had the disillusioning honor of being the only Black male on staff, so the induction period was succinct. As the recently on-boarded, energetically relational, linguistically "articulate" (you already know what that means), and unapologetically Black administrator with the freshly printed, ornately framed Harvard degree, faculty members swooned in the most trivial dialogues. In the dining hall one evening, a colleague and I were discussing whether or not Horace Mann's proposition was true that "education, then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is a great equalizer of the conditions of [wojmen—the balance wheel of social machinery."
Without any thought, she contended,
I tell our kids, especially our kids from New York City [the school participated in a program that recruited Black boarding students from New York City] that this is one of the most equalizing experiences of their life; because even though we have kids here paying $50,000 a year, and they aren't paying that, they are having an equal experience.
I paused her and asked two questions.
How do you know that "they"—the plurality of all Black students from New York City—aren't paying $50,000 a year? And, when you say that our Black students utilizing financial aid are having an equal experience as students of disproportionately-higher socioeconomic status, from Los Angeles to Oaxaca to Martha's Vineyard to London to Mumbai, what equalizes the experience?
Her face reddened as she replied, "Well, in the classroom, none of that matters. When students come into my classroom [she taught Upper $chool history], they are equal; they aren't their socioeconomic status, they aren't their race, and they aren't where they come from."
After a few seconds of reflection, I replied in an inadvertent diatribe,
Tell me this. How exactly is that possible? How are students able, at 11, 12, 13, 14, and 15 years old [the school was a 6-9th boarding community], to disassociate identities, familial structures, lived experiences, academic backgrounds, socioeconomic realities, and social contexts for 50-minutes, three times per week, while in your classroom? Do our Indian seventh-graders walk in and intentionally detach the national influence of the
British Raj—the period of imperialism when India was under control by the British on the Indian subcontinent from 1858 until 1947—on the language, government, and economics of the continent from their reading of the Indian Rebellion of 1857? Does a Black, apartment-living, working-class, Bronx-reared 13-year old have an equal educational experience—funds of knowledge, criticality, cultural capital, and social exposure—at a predominantly non-white, conservatively-principled, suburban boarding school, as a white, colonial-dwelling, upper-class, Vineyard-reared 13-year old? Both have equal dignity, but both do not have equal educational access.
After all of that, she still replied, "I just mean that, with a good education, we can all make it in America. Look at you, look at me. We both made it."
Knowing the vulnerability of positional politics as the newest hire, and being the only Black male, I begrudgingly took a safer route in response.
I want to be inordinately clear. First, our navigation of the American education system is systemically distinct. Secondly, 'look at you, look at me' assumes that you are the Vineyard-formed and I am the Bronx-formed? Thirdly, as history faculty, it is incumbent upon you to situate your proposition of 'we all can make it' within the context of the inherent inequalities and systemic inequities embedded in the very fabric of American education, from finances to facilities. And once you've situated in that context, then you must reflect on the vast and ever-widening income disparities between Black folx and white folx when you control for educational attainment. So, the next time you propose that education is the great equalizer, be clear to also name education as the great oppressor. And let's be dismally honest, we will never be equals in the sight of this nation, which was the intent of the founding fathers and the constitution.
To radically humanize the trauma of our students as a mean of power, the seemingly innocent rhetoric of aspiring abolitionists needs to stop its bend toward thoughtlessness and negligence and individualism and sensationalism, and bend the arc of rhetoric toward intention and systemic justice and inclusion and communal consciousness. And as a first step toward that bend where it results in the emancipation of language, school leaders must cultivate a culture of communal-resistance where perceptive attention is given to how educators, particularly our white educators, use linguistic power—in casual and calculated forms—to impose trauma on Black students; and therefore, invite all members of the community to participate in the resistance movement of calling linguistic power out, and calling folx who perpetuate it in. Of all the human consequences of our words in times of crisis, the greatest is that we will either retraumatize our students' confusion, dejection, grief, and hopelessness, or we will co-create the healing of our students with our students by offering words of clarity, healing, joy, and hope.