In very important moments, many of us tend to forget the power of words. We are taught, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” It’s lies, but I get it. The idea of that phrase is to boost self-esteem and assure children they cannot be bullied by someone else’s words. However, the reality is that words can be catastrophically harmful not only to a person but to a community of people. But, on the other hand, words can also be uplifting and can help bring communities together if used effectively.
Let’s take a look at what is going on right now in our country. After another senseless death of a Black man by the hands of the police, our citizens are fed up and are desperate for change. At a time where we need our leader the most, words like “thugs” and “dominate” are used in retaliation to protesting. Many protestors may wonder, why use words when I have been using them my entire life and still no one is listening? And you can’t get more direct than “I can’t breathe.” Though we may find ourselves declaring, less talk more action, I don’t believe words are useless if said effectively. I think the opposite. I believe words are an action that can lead to change.
I have personally experienced how group dialogues can affect a person and have a positive impact on communities. Many years ago, I was exposed to the teachings of Intergroup Relations (IGR) created at the University of Michigan, which helps students pursue social justice through education engagement, practice, and pedagogy. The program helps one create an atmosphere where people of different backgrounds and beliefs come together, and take part in activities and constructive dialogue to allow both sides to understand each person’s point of view and hopefully walk away more educated on diverse topics.
Imagine if people of color sat in a circle with white people who came from a racist upbringing. How’d you think that conversation would go? From facilitating many dialogues of such, I am aware that a lot of ignorance and tears come from these conversations, and change does not happen over night, but I’ve seen the final result. I’ve seen students and larger community groups change and have wonderful dialogue about their own ignorances, and witness pledges to go out and be a voice to facilitate change in our society.
What if our communities created an atmosphere where these dialogues around social justice can be had with the police and politicians and other groups that play a significant role in our society? What if that was a requirement of their job? I don’t know enough to say why we should defund the police, but I would advocate to adjust their budget to create room for constructive programs that may help result in less dead innocent people. Hey, it may not change shit, but what if we got just one person to understand the injustice that goes on in our society? To me, one person is a win because that person can talk to a friend, and that friend can pass on the message to another person and so on.
In my late teens, I was taught in order to affect change, I must “lean into discomfort.” It’s easy to have conversations about injustice with people who have the same beliefs as you. It’s easy to post on social media in solidarity with everyone that you follow or follows you. But is it easy to have that uncomfortable conversation with your family, coworkers, or strangers if your beliefs deem you the minority of the group? This question is the root of why the cycle of injustice continues to happen over generations. We’re too afraid to have those conversations, behind closed doors, with people that may hold power over us.
Of all the white people posting on social media in solidarity with #blacklivesmatter, how many are going to have conversations with their own family about the George Floyd protests? When will the lone heterosexual call out heterosexuals for homophobic statements? Who is going to be that guy to call out their boys for making misogynist comments?
These are behind closed door conversations that need to happen, and most importantly, it has to continue to happen even when it is not a mainstream topic. That is how you prove you are for real. And that is how we can start educating those around us and then how those people can start educating those around them.
If anything, we all can agree that a united society is a stronger society. Something as basic as everyone having equal rights and equal freedoms shouldn’t be so trivial. If we showed each other that respect, we can be a nation that sets a tone for all nations. We shouldn’t aim to “Make America Great Again.” We should try to figure out how to make “A New Great America.” Let’s learn from our past mistakes, incorporate what we’ve done right, and create a society we all can be proud. And, guess what, something as simple as words can get us there.
Food for thought.