In the Mac Weekly’s February 28th edition, Jeff Garcia critiqued the Department of Multicultural Life’s “More Than Words” campaign, describing it as a plea for self-censorship. In this article, he wrote, “we, as a learning community, must be earnestly self-critical.” We wholeheartedly agree. However, our interpretation of what it means to be self-critical is a little different.
The “More Than Words” campaign is not about shaming students who have used exclusive language, but rather it is about validating the experiences of traditionally underrepresented and marginalized students whose perspectives and narratives are oftentimes ignored in the classroom and the public sphere. The everyday usage of derogatory terms that the “More Than Words” campaign brings to light are terms that further silence these communities.
Mr. Garcia’s piece argues that focusing on intentional word choice gives an advantage to people coming from more privileged educational backgrounds. We believe that the opposite has more truth. People from marginalized backgrounds, who are directly impacted by the normalized “casual” use of these words, are those who know most directly about these words. We, also coming from public schools, felt overwhelmed when coming to Macalester and beginning to hear words like “Foucault” and “hegemony.” Now, as upperclass(wo)men, we’ve learned that the tools were in our back pockets all along. Being an advocate for justice—or heck, just being a kind person—isn’t about being up on Foucault. It’s about considering how your actions and words might feel for someone with a different set of life experiences. It’s about recognizing the power dynamics that exist in a world that values some identities more than others, and how the words we’ve been taught to take as “normal” are signifiers and reinforces of what is considered “abnormal” (read: anything other than white, cisgendered, heterosexual, able-bodied, upper-class, Christian or male). For us, learning about these power dynamics hasn’t come from classes or Foucault. It comes from life experiences.
This campaign is not meant to stop conversation, but to start it. The “More Than Words” campaign is a challenge to words we have taken for granted in everyday speech without considering their origin, their meaning and their impact. It asks us to question our own vocabulary. Racism and oppression are infused in so many of our daily interactions—listening to the weight of our own words is only the tip of the iceberg. No one is walking around with a roll of duct tape to stop you from speaking. Actually, you may find that most people won’t even call you out on using these words. That’s why the “More Than Words” campaign asks you to call yourself out.
We should be wary when the reaction to a campaign meant to empower marginalized groups contorts it into something that “attacks” those in privileged positions. Shouldn’t the conversation be about who we have hurt and who we are excluding? You’re right—it’s hard changing the speech you grew up with and were socialized to believe was the norm. However, it should not be the burden of the oppressed to deal with what people in positions of privilege are feeling uncomfortable about.
The definition of privilege is not having to be aware. “More Than Words” asks you, with zero irony, to check that privilege. The power dynamics we re-enact in speech— “that’s so gay,” “that’s retarded”—say more than words. These words indicate who and what we consider valuable in our society. Exclusive language might work fine for the privileged, but it silences everyone else. You want free speech? Great. So do we—but for everyone.