She was telling a story, as people do when they gather together on a porch, or around a dinner table. Just a funny story, something that made her laugh, that made us laugh as she recounted it.
But right in the middle of her story, the part where she is telling who else could testify to the veracity of the story, she mentioned the names of two other fellas who were present, then she added, without pause, the modifiers “these two black guys.”
She didn’t even know she had done it, and I didn’t interrupt her to point it out. I knew she didn’t mean anything by it, she was just telling her story and she wanted us to be in that moment with her, to join in the laughter of that moment. But I paused in my listening. Stopped and wondered: How come white people always do that? How come they feel the need to isolate out people that a’way? By skin tone. And why do they do that primarily when the person is black? Afterall, we don’t identify that a person is white when telling a story. I never say, “Henry, a white man from New York, was my agent.”
I don’t know, perhaps some of you know, but I suspect that black people don’t sit around telling stories by saying,”Karen, a white girl, is a writer I enjoy.” When I mention the writing of Tayari Jones, a writer whose work I have long enjoyed, I don’t say, “Tayari, a black woman, and I met in Oxford, Mississippi years ago.” Instead, I usually tell the story of how kind Tayari was to me that first night we met in Oxford and how the words she spoke to me that night have stayed with me all these years.
I’ve been thinking about our use of language a lot lately. Thinking about the stories we tell ourselves, and the ways in which we tell them. The thing that has prompted me to think about all this wasn’t the humorous story the girl was relating. It had started before all that. It started with the story of the migrant children being kidnapped and trafficked by Trump’s administration.
Would people respond differently to the story, the news reports, if instead of calling them “migrant children”, reporters and others – us- referred to these kids simply as “children.”
The use of the modifier “migrant” allows for the rest of “us” to marginalize these children. It is an ancient rhetorical approach used by politicians and war-mongers and fear-mongers to create and justify the “us” against “them” mentality. As long as we refer to “children” as “migrant children”, we give ourselves and others permission to think of them as “less than.”
Imagine if the news reports had read: “Children are being forcibly removed from their parents at the border” versus the reports of: “Migrant children are being forcibly removed from illegals at the border.”
See how the word play works there?
Oh, I know how journalists and others will defend the use of the modifier as simply a way of being descriptive and more accurate. I worked in newsrooms for years, primarily on the cop beat. It struck me even way back then how police logs would always refer to a suspect and/or offender as “WM” “HispM” or “BM”. Yet, when writing up the stories, we almost never used race as an identifier unless it was a black or brown male. Then it was always, “A black man driving along Interstate I-84 was taken into custody by OSP.” It was never “A white man driving along Interstate I-84 was taken into custody.” No. When it was a “WM” the story read like this, “A suspect was taken into custody.”
And this simple act of identify black men as offenders while not identify white men as offenders in news broadcasts and headlines is a way of marginalizing and criminalizing whole people groups. It is insidious. It is done too often without thought of the consequences. This abuse of language is one of the many ways we end up with prisons full of people of color. This is how little white girls and white boys learn to fear people of color.
When our white children, our white grandchildren hear on the headline news over and over again that “migrant children have been taken from their parents and caged”, they know they don’t have to worry because they aren’t “migrant” and their parents aren’t “immigrants seeking asylum”. So those white kids, they get to grow up in a world safe from the fears that children who are brown, or red, or black, or yellow never know.
A safe childhood. That’s the thing I told myself I would always strive to give my children. I owed them that much. As safe as a childhood as I could possibly provide.
A safe childhood, of course, is exactly what is driving these parents to bring their children to America. They are in search of giving their children the very same thing I wanted to give my children.
Loving children means creating a world without borders. A world in which all children are identified by their needs, their humanity, not their color or their origin of birth.
None of us were “blessed” to be born in the United States. God didn’t single us out as the “fortunate ones”. Those of us born here were born here by happenstance. We didn’t earn our citizenship. This notion of “merit based immigration” is just one more rhetorical trick-pony. What Trump and his eager minions mean by this is “wealth-based immigration.” If you have money you can fly into Florida and stay at a Trump hotel until you give birth to your child, in essence buying US citizenship.
Those who defend this policy, value children by the wrong values. What they mean when they say “migrant children” is children they deem unworthy.
Have you heard the stories of how those running the detention facilities (typically called jails) have mocked the mothers whose children have been stolen from them? These jailers mock these weeping mothers. They can do this because they don’t find those mothers as worthy as they do their own mothers, their own daughters, their own grandmothers. They consider these women, these fathers “less than”.
We can’t mistreat people until we begin to regard them as different than us. As long as we regard them as something “other” than our people, we give ourselves permission to disregard these people and their suffering. We give ourselves permission to mistreat entire people groups by the language we use. This abuse of language allows us to abuse others. This is why abusive parents often refer to abused children as “stupid” or “dumbasses.” In order to inflict suffering on another people group, we must first begin to abuse them with words. Demeaning them with words allows our cognitive brain to distance ourselves emotionally from them. We must see others as sub-human before we can harm them. This is why Trump refers to immigrants as “gangs” or as “rapists” and “murderers.”
Until we start employing language that is inclusive, language that honors the holy within each and every child, the sacred within each and every person, we will never, ever overcome the fear that is driving our current administration’s immigration policies.
The next time you speak of these children, don’t refer to them as “migrant children”. Instead, try the “frightened children” or the “terrified children who’ve been kidnapped from their desperate parents”. See how that changes the stories people are telling one another.
Until we change the narrative around immigration, old fears and ugly racism will continue to dominate the headlines.
We can no longer afford to be absentminded about the way we use language. We must be very intentional because trust me, those seeking to do harm to children and their parents, they are being very intentional about their words and their actions and their policies.
Karen Spears Zacharias is author of Where’s Your Jesus Now? Examining How Fear Erodes our Faith. (Zondervan).