Letter: Language shift will change perceptions

Graphic by Lori Deaton

2019 marked the 400-year anniversary of the first ship transporting enslaved Africans to Jamestown, Va. A piece of writing that touches on this subject is a collection called the 1619 Project, from The New York Times. As our class moved through this unit, our teacher and the articles we’ve read introduced a new idea of how we view, speak and perceive the words “slave owner,” “slave” and “plantation.”

Alternatives to these words are “enslaver,” “enslaved person” and “forced labor camps.”

The use of “slave” and “slave owner” dehumanizes and maintains the racism that encompasses those words. The word slave leaves no room for a person to be something other than that: a slave. Referring to people as “an enslaved person” instead of calling them simply “a slave” gives humanity back to the people who were not considered human, but property to be bought, sold or traded.

“Plantation” reflects idealism and commends the wealth of enslavers while overlooking the reality of enslaved labor that made the wealth; while “forced labor camps” acknowledges the fact that people were kidnapped and required to work with no gain.

Some people argue that using politically correct language is not essential. We argue that by changing the way we speak, we change the way we conceive the world and perceive our everyday lives. Although it takes conscious effort and practice, these simple changes in our language make big shifts in our community of Asheville, which must also work to reconcile our own legacy of slavery.

— B., A., and Kevyn

Editor’s note: This letter is one of three we received on this topic from students at a local K-8 school.


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23 thoughts on “Letter: Language shift will change perceptions

  1. C-Law

    B.A. and Kevyn–

    Let’s be honest and cut the crap…you and the other letter writers from Francine Delany are individuals who most happily use iCrap electronics, wear shoes and other clothing items made by literal slaves in China, SE Asia, Central America, and other off-shore “plantations” right here, right now in 2020. You are the “enslaver” of “enslaved persons” who have simply had the misfortune of being born half a world away from you, but you happily “enslave” them on “forced labor camps” and “sweatshops” the world over due to your unquenchable hunger and greed for cheap stuff made “overseas.”

    How white privileged and progressively hypocritical of you…but par for the course. You enthusiastically participate in the modern slave economy, yet want to scold everyone else about history from 400 years ago. Puhlease!

    Hey, I think the Sunrise Khmer Youth Movement is having a membership recruitment drive (that MtnX will undoubtedly give undeserved and overly sympathetic coverage to! haha!)…y’all ought to sign up, I think you’ll fit in well.

    Let’s see–
    Smug, progressive scolds untroubled by the magnitude of their own hypocrisy? Check!
    Utter lack of historical perspective or understanding of the present world around you? Check!
    Openness to regurgitating the left-wing drivel fed to you by your progressive “educators?” Check!

    Paging Ashley McDermott! It appears the future looks bright for the Asheville Sunrise Khmer Youth Movement. Just ramp up your recruitment prospecting activities at Francine Delany New School! ha!

    • Concerned parent

      Three points in response to C-law.

      First, pivoting to redirect focus of an argument to a different topic is a discrediting, redirection technique which exploits a known cognitive limitation of our ability to focus that has been used for centuries to dodge questions.

      Second, aligning your redirection with an argument about hypocrisy–“do as I say not as I do”–employs a separate polemic often used to point out hypocrisy as a way of avoiding addressing issues directly. Subtly evading the question at hand is actually a classic Soviet propaganda technique known as “whataboutism,” a word used to describe the “rhetorical diversion by Soviet apologists and dictators, who would counter charges of their oppression, ‘massacres, gulags, and forced deportations’ by invoking American slavery, racism, lynchings.” (That’s just from wikipedia.) Whataboutism charges hypocrisy but doesn’t actually address the problem at hand. Certainly, there’s value in exposing contradictions when they are proactive and offer nuance to an issue. But deflecting the argument and using discrediting tactics doesn’t do either of those things.

      Also, censuring the claims of 10-13 year old because they were born into a corrupt and exploitative society not of their making does not dismantle the validity of their argument. Likewise, mapping issues of contemporary, global, neoliberal violence onto children asking that we begin to offer redress for institutions of violence is like saying we shouldn’t stop beating our sister because our Dad beats his wife.

      Third. if you follow the nuance of their argument, the little you actually say about systems of oppression actually reinforces their point. You argue they likely use products made by enslaved people. Then you accuse them of being hypocrites for having been socialized by white privilege.

      Well, I think addressing the ways in which white privilege hides in language is exactly what they are trying to say.

      When the students wrote, “we argue that by changing the way we speak, we change the way we conceive the world and perceive our everyday lives.” Rather, the words we use actually determine both the meaning and the understanding of our world. Extending this argument would imply that it is actually the entrenched, implicit harm enacted by empowering legacies of violence through language which enables contemporary re-enactments of it, such as the ones you describe. Perhaps if we had reconciled our debts to those who had been irreparably harmed then our comfort with amassing further moral deficit would not be so widespread.

      That the next generation is at least taking steps to balance the moral imperative ledger isn’t something to be mocked. I fear for what they have inherited from us and wish them nothing but luck. They deserve better than that inheritance and better than your reply.

    • Peter Robbins

      Notice how “C-Law’s” comment, for all its predictable and tedious snarling, uses the term “sweatshops,” instead of “factories,” to shape perceptions. Goes to show that even rapid dogs can learn new tricks.

      (By the way, I doubt these young people are oblivious to the deplorable conditions in sweatshops overseas. I certainly have no reason to think they wouldn’t care. Perhaps our man C-Law should put his prodigious talent to helping them identify practicable responses more helpful than cynicism. Oh, wait, that would take effort, wouldn’t it? I’ll do it for him. See https://www.dosomething.org/us/facts/11-facts-about-sweatshops.)

    • Lou

      You really should consider using your writing and reasoning skills to do something positive in the world instead of spewing sarcasm and hate.

  2. Lulz

    So then if one refuses to play along with “your” speech I guess you’ll jail them lulz. Because then they can become the slaves to your feels.

    Get outta here with that lunacy. I have nothing to reconcile with you. I owe you nothing. Learn something besides pursuing guilt upon others.

    • Anonymous_User

      We know that this article was written by kids and yet I can feel your maturity is one of a lower level. Who uses the word “lulz” while responding to a serious topic, a topic that does not enslave people, but instead lets them free.

      • Lulz

        No it actually imprisons them to the thought that they have no hope to become successful because they have a legion of people who tell them the country is bad. The only way they become free is to realize that it ain’t the words keeping them down. It’s the intellectually insane who promote this crap that do. And they do it for the most selfish reason of all. The have power.

        Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will NEVER hurt me. That’s all these kids need to know. They sure as hell don’t need to listen to people that push division and hate. Or tell them that their success or failure is due what happened 400 years ago. That’s some serious mental illness being pushed onto kids who have no clue they’re being used.

        • Lou

          The nation IS bad, we have a history of enslaving others. Wait, correction, WHITE MEN like you have a history of enslaving others. Privilege and greed and a lack of compassion for others is what has ruined the world. Proud?

  3. Enlightened Enigma

    Young skulls of mush being indoctrinated in government screwls….get your child out of there NOW!

  4. George Orwell

    From now on, “slaves” will be referred to as “unpaid laborers.” “Slavery” will be referred to as “involuntary employment.” And plantations will be referred to as “farms.” See how that makes everything better?

  5. Mike

    As I posted in response to the previous letter, I commend the promotion of civic engagement as part of these students’ education. Secondly, please consider researching the reasoning behind the person-first language movement. For example, what sounds more respectful: Right winger or person with a right wing perspective?

  6. Shultz!

    Great letter, keep it up! Don’t ignore the trolling above and definitely don’t take it personally, though it can be hard w/the name-calling & whatnot. Listen to their words so you can understand their perspective & give them respect, even if they don’t do the same for you.

    • Peter Robbins

      That’s right. Don’t let the male-gendered progeny of canine matrilineage get you down.

  7. Shabby Rose

    Pedantics won’t alter history one iota. But we might say :: slaves (noun : a person who is the legal property of another and is forced to obey them) were enslaved (verb : a person who works for no pay, obeys commands, and has lost his or her freedom) on plantations (noun : an estate on which crops such as coffee, sugar, and tobacco are cultivated by resident labor) to perform forced labor (self explanatory.)

  8. MG Massey

    Hypocrisy isn’t only on the left.
    The right will always be openly hateful..
    However..arpund Casheville,one can fully see that our local elected democrats care only about themselves.
    Selfishness…greed…hatred towards the poor..disabled and elderly is just the way this phony shallow hedonistic tourist town is.
    All that matters in this insular town is how much money the ruling class shoves in their pockets.
    The people just don’t matter.
    Watching all y’all argue for years over semantics of a pedantic nature,has proved to me how blind most people are.
    Yes..Francine Delaney is a insular school..i tried to get my son in their.
    Bunch of stuck up former hippies
    Still..the kids are far smarter than their parents.

  9. Stan Hawkins

    It matters little what words you use to describe these events, as long as the knowledge of the events are accurately obtained. Teen-agers will undoubtedly begin to question any authority figures as time passes, some things never change.

    Just curious though; what do we call the African Kings who organized with the Europeans to embark upon the trading of human life in the eighth century? With the knowledge (hopefully taught) that our current progeny of Buckingham Palace ancestors colluded with the African Kings for human trafficking, how should we feel when our progressive media fawns over the plight of the “Royal Family?” What words do we hear about that, or about the knowledge of history that the Europeans conspired with the Islamist for a lucrative African trade of human life? With this knowledge, how should we feel and what words are appropriate? Just what was the European motive to get all this started anyway? Perhaps the students will address these issues in an upcoming post.

    There had been eight or more centuries of this abominable practice prior to 1619 – I hope these privileged young people are learning the whole story.

    • Peter Robbins

      I like your point about the British, Stan. I’m old enough to remember when Andrew Young, as U.N. ambassador, had to publicly apologize for making the same observation. https://www.nytimes.com/1977/04/08/archives/young-gives-an-apology-to-britain-for-calling-it-chicken-on-racism.html.

      But I disagree with the proposition that the words we use to describe history don’t matter all that much. The words “plantation” and “forced labor camp” certainly sound different to me, such that a writer describing a “plantation” ought to at least consider slipping in the words “forced labor” or “slave labor” somewhere closeby. The terms “slave,” “enslaved man,” “enslaved woman” and “enslaved people” present subtler, but still important, concerns. “Slave” is a label that defines the whole person in terms of single aspect, the same way that “suit” can be used to describe a personality. To me, it’s not so much a matter of being insensitive or politically incorrect; it’s just not the whole story. “Enslaved man,” on the other hand, juxtaposes irreconcilable opposites and forces us to confront the contradiction head-on. It is jarring because it evokes in the reader (or at least me) a reflexive rebellion against the very notion that these two ideas — individualism and slavery — could possibly fit together. Is it too much to speculate that this same tension was experienced by the enslaved man every day of his existence? Or to argue that this is the fundamental contradiction which defined America, more than anything else, for its first century ?

      In studying history it is important to learn the facts, to be sure, but it is also important to get a sense of how events might have been felt to those who lived through them. If you think I’m wrong about this, imagine what would have happened next if an enslaved man, upon being reminded by his master not to forget that he was still a slave, had replied “No, sir. I am not a slave. I am a man enslaved by you.” Something tells me the master would not have chalked it up to six of one, half dozen of the other.

      • Stan Hawkins

        Peter, I cannot take issue with much of what you say, including confirming the historical record of these events to some degree.

        Word smithing is a popular sport these days, leaving one to ponder about the educational benefits of such prowess of our language. I find that most Americans prefer to keep things simple as does the American Media when it browbeats us with 8th grade level propaganda while marketing all the things they say we need. So, when we call a slave an enslaved person, a slave owner an enslaver, a plantation a forced labor camp, what are we really accomplishing? If this practice proposed makes these kids feel better about themselves, their ancestors, and improves relations of people of a different color, I can buy in and see how it goes. I feel pretty sure when the African person (enslaved person) was placed in chains in Africa by his own people or neighbors, and made to board a ship Captained by European interests – he / she knew that this was a very bad thing. Those words being enough.

        Call me a skeptic. My sense is, however, that this is a slight of hand agenda played upon the minds of young people, that does not include the whole story of the plight of enslaved persons dating back to the time when their own African Kings and their neighbors placed them in chains for the benefit of European interest around the world. If these students can confirm that they are the recipients of teaching that includes these facts, along with the history of the UK and the Islamist interest in these sordid events, then I will feel better.

        Until then, I am wary that I will awake one morning with my “Smart TV” hollering at me from my slumber, demanding that I report to the TV area for my morning “smart words training.”

  10. MG Massey

    “History of White People”
    By Nell Irvin Painter
    Medical Apartheid by Harriet A Williamson
    Is also a must read.
    Both validated 63 years of experience

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