cross posted from my Media Justice column
The language we use and how we use them can be forms of resistance. I understand that not many folks may “get” this and many folks may try (and sometimes succeed) in isolating folks who use language in another form. This article is about how language is a form of resistance, something that is alive and evolving, and a part of media justice. Please don’t confuse this piece on language as resistance with permission to use terms that stem from white supremacist spaces to marginalize groups of people. This article centers marginalized and oppressed people and our use of language to resist that white supremacy, heterosexism, transmisogyny, ableism, and xenophobia.
This post came about as I started teaching a course that centers women of Color. I spelled the term “woman” with a y as “womyn of Color.” When I provided the syllabus to students, one student said that there was a typo. I laughed thinking “oh my goodness I worked so long and hard on this syllabus of course there is a typo that I didn’t pick up” (because that’s how it always goes sometimes with this kind of stuff). But then the student said the typo was on the first line of the syllabus and I knew it was in response to how the term “womyn” was spelled.
It was from that space that we began the class. I had already decided to begin with this topic so it was timely and exactly what I had hoped we would explore as a group. We had a great discussion on how people who identify as women have used language to resist and recreate and build community. We discussed examples such as “womyn” and “wimmin” all of which my students had not seen or experienced before. We discussed why there was a need or desire to do this with language.
We did not begin the class discussing what the backlash is to using language as a form of resistance. And there is! Folks are really not open to and are critical of how oppressed people use language and communicate, even if it’s communicating with their communities of practice.
I’ve written about the use of the @ symbol, which is a form of resistance and there’s been a lot of critique. Folks have wanted to hold onto traditional forms of discussing and using Spanish language because they are connected to the formal “rules” of language. Yet, who made those rules? Who benefits from challenging the forms of resistance communities use to communicate? What are the benefits by telling oppressed people the ways they communicate are wrong or inaccurate or make others uncomfortable? Why is there not an examination into why that person is invested, what they think they are giving up by seeing language as fluid, or sitting and examining their discomfort? What can be learned by that process?
This is a good time to revisit the Anzaldúa quote of: “So if you want to really hurt me, talk badly about my language. Ethnic identity is twin skin to linguistic identity—I am my language. Until I can take pride in my language, I cannot take pride in myself.” Let’s be honest, it’s scary for those in and with power when oppressed people and youth take pride in themselves because it represents survival and a revolutionary love for our lives in a way that demands our existance as humans be honored and treated with dignity.
I’ve been told that my writing is not good enough, been pushed out of degree-seeking programs because my writing wasn’t good (and then went on to have 4 writing gigs, this being one of them!), or was too accessible in that I was writing in a way that brought more folks to the conversation. It doesn’t stop there! I’ve been told (as I’m sure many of you have) that my use of language makes me seem uneducated (and I have 3 degrees so I’m actually over educated but this is most definitely connected to class), young (which is adultist and elitist and speaks to how folks don’t think youth can speak “well”), careless (why would someone so overly educated choose to speak with slang or made up words?), and isolating (why would I choose to speak in a way that will isolate other folks, and “other” in this example include people with power).
Code-switching has been a part of my life since I was born. Growing up in an immigrant sub/urban home for my first 17 years of life impacted my use of language. One parent speaking limited English, but fluent in Spanish and another parent bilingual in both languages, I grew up in a bilingual home where “Spanglish” was spoken on a regular basis. I’ve been told my use of “Spanglish” terminology is problematic. When I hear this I interpret this as my identity and existance being problematic. I’ve come to a space today where I realize this is not my problem but the reality is that if a person in/with power thinks this way it becomes my problem because that is how systemic forms of discrimination and white supremacy works.
My response to this has been to remain within my community and find others/move to a space where code-switching from different languages is normalized: New York City. This is a huge privilege to be able to move, it’s also a form of survival to self-isolate for self-care and affirmation that I did not find in other places and spaces. I share this because we do live in a world and country where Spanish is being outlawed in the US southwest; states where the original language spoken was not English (look at the rulings of SB1070 for more information on this).
We also live in a world where folks are being isolated in “new spaces” (think online) for using and creating their own languages. As language evolves and is used to express and resist there are folks who are hesitant to recognize us and value the ways we exert our power and identities through our languages. Sometimes I say to myself and my community: “how dare someone tell us how to communicate with one another?” Then I realize that folks who want to dictate and tell us we are “wrong” for using language when communicating with one another want us to assimilate and conform to their standards and center them and their (hurt) feelings.
In the immortal words of Homie the Clown from “In Living Color”: Homie don’t play that.
Honestly, I’ve lost jobs, building connections, education, and opportunities because folks do not like my use of language are are unwilling to recognize how their power-over antics result in additional oppression. And to be honest, I’m sure I’ll lose more because when someone tells me my identity is wrong or won’t be tolerated because they disagree with it means more work for me to do with them in addition to the work I’m already doing. Usually that work is unpaid and exhausting. To share with someone how I’ve survived and maintained my sanity and humanity through language means reliving traumatic experiences for the benefit of someone else. It means my self-care rituals and healers must be immediately accessible for me; and life doesn’t always work that way.
I share these stories with readers because it’s important to know these interactions exist and there are choices. I’ve made many choices to walk away from such interactions and I imagine I will again. Doing unpaid work is not my idea of survival for myself. Sometimes I’ll do it when I see it as an important part of building community, but often, and again this comes with some privilege I’ve acquired through age and education, I’ve decided not to do this work and not take the job or opportunity. For me, this is a form of self-care. To keep my dignity and remind myself that I’m worthy even when I don’t get validation from folks in positions of power.
Your language is worthy as are the communities you are a part of that use them. Your life and existance is valued even when others may disvalue the language you create that is home for you. You are important even when others think your existance challenges theirs, it’s not your fault and it’s ok to turn down doing unpaid work!
How have others used their language as a form of resistance? How have folks in power used their power-over based on language? I’d imagine so many folks have stories and strategies to share!