Time Travel - Some Things Need to Change
Mass shootings have been curiously absent in most of the past year. There have still been some, but the lowest number in years, and a lower number of victims. However, what happened in Atlanta this week reminds us that we still have a growing problem among us. We have things to learn in our society about why it happens, and also about how we talk about it.
The first theory was that the shooting was racially motivated. Although that turned out not to be fully true in this case, there was plenty of reason to suspect it. Over the past year, many people have accused Asians of being behind this pandemic, causing it and spreading it. Through phrases like “Kung Flu” and many more disturbing examples, Americans have said hateful things to anyone who seems to be of Asian descent, with no distinction behind where they were born, where their citizenship lies, or if they’ve even traveled to China, where COVID-19 did originate. However, blaming all Asians for the COVID-19 pandemic is like blaming all birds for the one that pooped on your car. Poop happens, the bird often can’t control where it lands, and unleashing anger on birds isn’t going to fix the problem.
What I want to raise up for us to consider is our language. How we talk about things makes a big difference.
When I was in high school (and yes, I want you to think back to those wonderful and horrible years with me…), I was the manager for the girls’ soccer team. I enjoyed soccer very much, and I played a little, but I wasn’t very good. Being the manager meant I could be close to the sport even though I wasn’t a good player. I kept the stats, organized the team and their supplies, and even learned how to provide medical assistance by wrapping ankles and performing first aid. It was lots of fun, and we had a great time together. I assisted the coach in various jobs to make his job easier, and by my senior year, we had worked together for years. And then something happened. At practice one day, the girls were practicing shooting on goal, and some of the balls were going wide. Normally, everyone took turns retrieving balls, and if I were free, I would do some too, in turn with everyone else. But that day, one of the girls yelled at me to go get all the balls that had gone way behind the goal into the next field, because they were tired, and fetching should be my job. Yes, she said fetching, and I felt like a dog. I went and got the balls. However, I felt unappreciated and unvalued, and had trouble shaking that feeling. She was probably just having a bad day, but her words and tone really hurt.
Can you think of other ways that could have been worded that would have been better? I surely can, to this day. Language matters, friends.
In high school, we were all big on labeling and putting people into groups. The jocks there, the nerds over here, the goths across the way. I think we all participated in that labeling, without much thought, but sometimes it hurt, didn’t it? Labeling like that is designed to overlook people’s individual differences, the things that make them unique as who God created them to be. It means you lump people together based on your perceptions of them, and then the stereotypes started. ALL the jocks were dumb, ALL the nerds lacked fashion sense, ALL the goths wore black constantly… except if you looked closely enough, it wasn’t true. It never is. Stereotypes don’t hold when you take the time to get to know the people you’re lumping together. The challenge is caring enough to spend the time to get to know them… and if you winced a little bit as you read that, hold on to that feeling.
In society today, some people speak negatively about political correctness, the idea that we need to be careful with our language so as not to offend people. Some believe that the recent decision by Dr. Seuss’ estate not to publish 6 of his books anymore because of words and pictures that are racially skewed is all about political correctness, or the newer term of cancel culture. Some people respond that there’s no way to keep from offending people, so we should just be ourselves and deal with it. They want to be able to say whatever they want without being ‘canceled.’
I understand the value of being ourselves, and I also understand the reality that I am decades beyond high school, and I still remember the power of that moment that undercut and degraded me. Somewhere in the middle is a better answer.
One of the dimensions in our society today is that we speak about different racial and ethnic groups, and other groups too, as if every member of that group was like every other member. It’s like a throwback to high school. Instead of nerds and jocks and goths, we have African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Middle Easterners, and Hispanics or Latinx. We speak of them as monolithic groups, and then we tend to speak poorly of the whole group if we have a negative experience with one person in the group. Or we read into the other group’s actions a threat or a reality that isn’t really there, if only we knew them better.
In Ohio, I remember hearing from white people who lived in a small town about the Hispanic people I worked with, since I could speak Spanish. In the afternoons, when the Hispanic community got off work, they came home and headed out to see each other, gathering on street corners or in empty lots. The white people of the town felt threatened. It didn’t seem normal to them, maybe was even gang activity, and they avoided certain areas of town at that hour. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Some of the Hispanic families enjoyed checking in with each other and chatting after a long day of work, and their gatherings reflected that. The kids played, the parents chatted, and then they went home for dinner. Since the two groups couldn’t easily communicate with each other, and didn’t choose to try, no one understood what was really going on. There are gangs made of Hispanic youth, but just because there are some doesn’t mean that all Hispanic youth are in gangs.
The way our society operates won’t change until and unless WE change. That’s what part of this movement is all about, to call attention to our language, our assumptions, our stereotyping, and to get us to change it. Team mascots are beloved, but a team mascot that promotes the idea that all Native Americans are savage fighters is a problem, especially when many Native American tribes are best known for keeping the peace. If it’s a one-dimensional label of everyone in a group, there are better ways to handle it. It’s one small step toward a more peaceful and loving society.
No one of Asian descent should have to hear derogatory things about the pandemic hurled at them when they did nothing to cause it. No Capitol police officer should have to hear the n-word used to describe them as they do their job of protecting legislators. No one of Hispanic descent should have to hear someone tell them to go back where they came from because we don’t want them here. None of us should be saying hurtful things or using one-dimensional labels unless we’re willing to hear them about ourselves.
That’s why Jesus reminds us in the Bible to do unto others as we would have them do unto us.
Language matters. Cleaning up our language does not negate the bloodshed of mass shootings. Cleaning up our language does not fix our problems. However, cleaning up our language does show respect for others, the respect we likely want for ourselves. Over time, changing our language will make a difference. It starts with each one of us. This is God’s work; let’s get on board!