Our Words Matter

Animated graphic of a group of three people with their arms around each other. They are smiling and word bubbles above their heads say: Decolonize our language, AAVE is not "improper," There is no right way to speak, and power in resistance

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“Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge.” – Toni Morrison

We often don’t think about how powerful our words are—they create worlds and experiences for everyone around us. Living in a country colonized by oppressors, we have been conditioned to casually use oppressive language that assert harmful power dynamics against historically marginalized communities.

The first step in creating the world we want to live in is recognizing how deeply ingrained colonialism is within our language and practices. From there, we can begin to build better habits for ourselves and those around us. Here are several ways we all can begin to decolonize our language.

Stop using ableist, racist, gendered, and other oppressive language 

Oppressive language is abundant. Most of us use oppressive language without knowing, unaware of the dark history it represents. When we do this, we become complicit in the violence experienced by historically marginalized communities.  

To push back on the use of oppressive language, we must be open to learning the history of the words and phrases in our lexicon and make a focused efforts to replace them with alternatives. Here are some common words and phrases that are harmful, suggested alternatives, and reasoning behind the suggestions: 

A table listing words and phrases to use as alternatives to oppressive language.

Center equity in storytelling 

Storytelling is a powerful tool in communications work. Storytelling can be used to uplift communities and shine a spotlight on their true experiences, or it can unintentionally exploit. One example is the way North American history is traditionally taught in the United States—painting colonizers as benign explorers in search of opportunity and omitting the genocide of Indigenous peoples. This manipulation of story leads to an incorrect narrative that results in oppressive power dynamics. 

As storytellers, we must acknowledge the power that comes with telling someone else’s story and proceed with justice and equity at the center of our work, avoiding harm at all costs. It is a privilege to be told a story—a sign of trust from its originator. Therefore, it is our responsibility to center equity when telling that story to others. 

When developing stories, it is important to ask questions such as: 

  • Do I have the person’s consent to tell their story?  
  • Why is this story important? 
  • Who does this story benefit? 
  • Am I the right person to tell this story? 
  • Am I equitably portraying the story?   
  • How am I disrupting white supremacy and colonialism through storytelling? 

Storytelling is complex, but it is an essential part of building community and creating the world we want to live in. By relearning and reimagining how we collect and tell stories, we support the work of decolonization. 

There is no right way to speak 

Decolonization of language is a form of resistance. By centering equity and belonging in our communications, we are creating a world where people of all identities, backgrounds, and experiences are welcomed and valued.  

Historically oppressed communities who have been forced to learn new languages following colonization have resisted this oppression by creating languages of their own. Unfortunately, this has not come without backlash. Languages like African American Vernacular English (AAVE) and Spanglish are commonly labeled as “broken,” “improper” or “wrong,” and their speakers as “uneducated” or “unintelligent.” It is important to understand the history behind the way communities speak and how it exemplifies their resistance against colonialism and other systems of oppression. 

There is no default language, and we should not expect others to accommodate us simply because we do not know or understand their language. Through our writing, we should quote people exactly as they speak, especially if it is in another language, as their words are a representation of who they are and where they come from. Changing their words to fit specific criteria is inauthentic and counter to achieving racial and ethnic equity. 

Choose to center care over harm

Our words are a representation of who we are, what we believe in, and they are a marker of how we present ourselves to others. We have the power to decide whether our language will either center care or harm. By intentionally changing our language, we are committing to rejecting oppressive societal norms that have othered countless communities.  

Decolonization is an uncomfortable process, but with time we will begin to be a part of a world where people of all backgrounds, experiences and identities are uplifted and valued.

* Who are you calling ‘vulnerable’? Article by Valerie Johnson for Generocity. LINK

About The Author

Kati Rodríguez Pérez

Communication Intern