Introduction by KATIE SCHLECHTER, IndyKids
You’ve heard the phrase, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” In daily life, however, this does not seem to be true. Words have power to cause harm from a single comment. Moreover, the use of certain words by a society over time can also cause deep pain and even contribute to existing prejudice.
Language is also constantly changing, and along with it, the meaning behind words evolves. A word that was common 50 years ago may lead someone to feel discriminated against today. The terms discussed here are currently at the center of a nationwide debate involving journalists, activists, community members and groups who have experienced long histories of discrimination in the United States. This discussion revolves around the importance of asking tough questions about the meaning and history behind the words that we use every day.
Dropping the “I-Word”
By NYLU AVERY BERNSHTAYN, age 8
People cross national borders every day. Some of them are undocumented, or do not possess the paperwork the government says is required to live in the country they are settling in. There is a debate in the United States over what to call such immigrants. “Illegal,” one of the terms used to describe undocumented immigrants, refers to an activity, not a human being. Immigrant rights activists say the term makes people feel dehumanized. Some say it is racist and inaccurate.
In September 2010, Race Forward, a nonprofit social justice organization, launched the “Drop the I-Word” campaign. They are calling for people to stop using the word “illegal” to describe immigrants. Dehumanizing language can lead to violence. In 2008, Marcelo Lucero, an Ecuadorean immigrant, was assaulted and killed in Patchogue, NY, by an attacker who called him an “illegal.”
Some newspapers have already dropped the “I-word” and are replacing it with what they believe are more accurate terms like “undocumented” or “unauthorized.” Others, like the New York Times and the Washington Post, are choosing not to drop it. “[We] have to make those decisions for journalistic reasons alone,” said New York Times associate managing editor Philip B. Corbett, “based on what we think best informs our readers.”
Jose Antonio Vargas is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who started Define America, a campaign to help immigrants. In 2011, he wrote an article in the New York Times Magazine titled “My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant” in an effort to spark a conversation about using the term “illegal” to describe a person.
“Like countless other undocumented people, particularly young ones who’ve grown up in the United States and call this country our home, I outed myself to be seen as a human being who is more than my immigration status,” he said.
What’s in a Name? History vs. the Washington, D.C. NFL Team
By ISABEL MODELL-KOWALSKI, age 12
The NFL team the “Washington Redskins” is facing controversy over its name. The Oneida Indian Nation says that the term “redskins” is racist and has petitioned the football team’s owner Daniel Snyder to change the name. However, Snyder has rejected their requests.
Ray Halbritter, the Oneida Indian Nation chairperson, stated, “As this country’s first people, we deserve simply to be treated as what we are: Americans.” He says that the term excludes and stereotypes Native American people, and is similar to the “N-word” used to degrade African Americans. The term “redskins” appeared during the early conflicts between European colonists and Native Americans. When the U.S. government wanted to make room for westward expansion, they passed the Indian Removal Act of 1830, systematically* forcing Native Americans onto small reservations,** usually on the worst patches of land.
Despite this history and the Oneida Indian Nation’s complaint, current team owner Snyder refuses to change the name. “After 81 years, the team name, ‘Redskins,’ continues to hold the memories and meaning of where we came from, who we are, and who we want to be in years to come,” he said.
The Oneida Indian Nation responded, saying, “You need to get over the idea that this name is not racist just because you say it isn’t. That’s not the act of a community leader.”
While the issue is controversial, the history of the term and the U.S. government’s conquest of Native Americans is unquestionable. It illustrates how words can be considered harmless to some people while degrading to those who feel tied to their deeper meanings.
Glossary of Terms
Dehumanize: to treat someone as though he or she is not a human being.
Reservation: an area of land run by a Native American tribe under the U.S. government’s Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Systematic: something done in an organized way for a specific purpose. In this case, for the purpose of removing Native Americans from land that the U.S. government wanted to use.