The importance & problem of language

There’s no denying that language plays a massive role in our day to day communications, but what problems can language cause when it comes to tackling more difficult subjects with a wider group?

I have spent the last 5 or so years entering in to discussions about race, identity, privilege and, more recently, unconscious bias. In this time, I’ve found language to be a massive barrier and block to open and honest dialogue. When writing my dissertation (which covered topics including cultural identity and cultural appropriation) I spent hours and hours questioning every word I was using and the connotations of such words from multiculturalism to British.

This isn’t such a problem when you’re researching, but what happens when you want to open up the discussion of your research to face to face conversation? This is, after all, the ideal next stage for any research… to have it discussed and opening dialogue.

What I have found is that conferences or discussions looking at these subjects end up spending more time discussing the words we choose than the subject itself.

I was speaking a few weeks ago to someone who’s role it is to have some of these challenging discussions at a high level in the sector and when discussing the use of language together, we recognised the importance of questioning term but not to the detriment of open and honest discussion.

For me, this means that I spend time considering language for myself and will have discussions around this when the time is right, but for the rest of the time, not getting caught up on the exact term someone chooses to use. More importantly it means not creating an environment where people are too scared to have honest discussion around difficult subjects for fear of saying the wrong thing – that doesn’t help us to progress anything. One of the most important things I’ve learnt is that there’s a time to assert your views and there’s also a time to just listen to other perspectives. Getting the right balance is something I continually strive for.

For example, in recent months I have seen and heard a real increase of ‘people of colour’ being used across the sector. Initially my response to this was very strongly negative. It felt to me like we were moving ever closer to the ‘one-drop rule’ of America, and as someone of mixed heritage I failed to see how I could be a colour, my siblings be a colour, my nephews be a colour, my dad be a colour, whilst my mum and partner be… non… invisible?! From what I can see all of my family are a different colour… but we have in common the fact that we are all a colour.

After speaking with some friends and colleagues about why they chose to define themselves in this way, however, I was able to see that whilst I read these negatives from the term, they were viewing it in a completely different light. It got me thinking, if it’s a term that works for them then who was I to challenge them on it?

In the same way, I still choose to describe myself as Mixed Race whilst the politically correct term has moved on to Dual Heritage. For me this is too simplified a term. I, like most of us in this day and age, am a mixture of multiple heritages. So does this mean I’m correct to abandon the term so many others choose to use? Would they feel that my use of Mixed Race is problematic for them? I don’t think in a room of 100 people we would ever all agree, so whilst it’s useful to challenge individually and with friends, colleagues etc. I don’t believe it’s worth wasting time trying to find a definitive answer that we all conform to. It’s never going to happen.

Now, when I approach discussion or debate I am far happier to let my personal views be at bay whilst we discuss the real thing we are trying to tackle. That’s not to say I wouldn’t pick up on terms that I just find plain offensive!

*Featured Image: Street art meets poetry at Birmingham Custard Factory*

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