Words Matter (Part 1)
By Darryl Sweeper, Jr., MA, and Dominic Ysidron, MS
“We should acknowledge that the childhood adage, ‘sticks and stones can break my bones, but names can never hurt me,’ is patently untrue. Words and the meanings with which they are imbued can achieve accuracy and relevance, or they can transmit dangerous stereotypes and half-truths. They can empower or disempower, humanize or objectify, engender compassion or elicit malignant fear and hatred. Words can inspire us or deflate us, comfort us, or wound us. They can bring us together or render us enemies.” – William White, writer on addiction recovery and policy
Every individual, regardless of race, sex, age, or ability, deserves to be treated with respect and dignity. As part of the effort to end racism, discrimination, and segregation — in education, employment, and our communities at large — it is crucial to eliminate prejudicial language (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2017).
In the last few months, hate and racism directed at people of Asian descent have spiked due to the outbreak of the new coronavirus. The virus was first reported in December in China’s Wuhan province (Taylor, 2020). Influencers and news reports quickly took to their social media platforms. They pointed fingers at the entire Chinese community, going so far as to call for the deportation of people of Chinese ethnicity from the United States. Media outlets have posited the virus as proof that “diversity is not our strength” (Media Matters for America, 2020). More notable is the recent responses referring to the diseases as “the Chinese Virus” on social media. Despite public attempts to correct this language, many have refused to do so, opening the door for other leaders and commentators to chime in with their unique iterations of hate-filled ignorance dubbing COVID-19 the “Wuhan virus” and even “Kung Flu” (Rogers, Jakes, and Swanson, 2020).
These words are not only tactless, but their repercussions are felt throughout the world. People of Chinese ethnicity are facing unwarranted hatred and alienation for merely being Chinese (Taylor, 2020). For instance, Chinese restaurants across the world are reporting a significant decline in business (Yeung, 2020) and classmates have verbally and physically abused Chinese students in the U.K. (Lindrea & Gillett, 2020). The pandemic has broad implications for other of people of Asian descent as they are experiencing similar discrimination and violence as well (Phillips, 2020). This racist rhetoric is unacceptable and should not be tolerated under any circumstances. As mental health professionals, we must all take responsibility to reject language that ridicules, condemns, or vilifies another person because of their race, religion, gender, age, culture, or ethnic background. We should remember that our #WordsMatter. Words have the power to hurt or to heal, divide, or to unite, to shed truth or to spread falsehood. Further, it is vital that as allies, we stand up against racist rhetoric aimed at populations of color and marginalized communities, because silence represents complicity. Albert Einstein was famously quoted saying, “the world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing.”
The “Words Matter” campaign, upheld by many organizations around the world, aims to encourage all communities to understand how words have power. This campaign seeks to raise awareness regarding the context of our words and phrases and developing an understanding of how they can be hurtful or offensive (UNC Greensboro, 2017). Specific language connects to larger systems of institutional marginalization, including those with mental health challenges and disabilities. This campaign is not centered on language policing rather it involves being a practitioner of careful and deliberate communication, noting that the words and phrases we use have consequences (UNC Greensboro, 2017). The goal of these campaigns is to promote diversity and inclusion language by educating and creating opportunities for dialogue. (UNC Greensboro, 2017). “Words Matter” campaigns have been taken up by communities who advocate for immigrant persons (Migration and Development Civil Society Network, 2014), people with stigmatized diseases including HIV (Wolitski, 2018) and substance use disorders (National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2020) as well as for LGBT+ inclusion (The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, 2018), among many other causes.
We can all participate in the Words Matter campaign by committing to the use of appropriate and non-racist or prejudice terminology when referring to stigmatized groups. Another way to participate is by sharing your support and allyship for those impacted. Also, there are forums on social media where you can share your personal experiences of how discriminating terminology and discourse has impacted your daily reality, if you feel comfortable. Finally, you can participate in the conversation by using the hashtag #WordsMatter on Twitter and Instagram.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2017). Communicating with and about people with disabilities. Atlanta, GA: National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities. https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/disabilityandhealth/pdf/disabilityposter_photos.pdf.
Lindrea, V. & Gillett, F.(2020). Coronavirus: British Chinese people reveal prejudice amid outbreak. Retrieved from Https://Www.bbc.com/News/Uk-51348593.
Media Matters for America. (2020). Tucker Carlson blames “diversity” and “wokeness” for the spread of Coronavirus. Retrieved from https://www.mediamatters.org/tucker-carlson/tucker-carlson-blames-diversity-and-wokeness-spread-coronavirus
Migration and Development Civil Society Network. (2014). ‘Words Matter’. Retrieved from https://madenetwork.org/campaigns/words-matter
National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020). Words Matter – Terms to Use and Avoid When Talking About Addiction. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/nidamed-medical-health-professionals/health-professions-education/words-matter-terms-to-use-avoid-when-talking-about-addiction
Phillips, K. (2020). ‘They look at me and think I’m some kind of virus’: What it’s like to be Asian during the coronavirus pandemic. Retrieved from https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2020/03/28/coronavirus-racism-asian-americans-report-fear-harassment-violence/2903745001/
Rogers, K., Jakes, L., and Swanson, A.(2020). Trump Defends Using ‘Chinese Virus’ Label, Ignoring Growing Criticism. Retrieved from Https://Www.nytimes.com/2020/03/18/Us/Politics/China-Virus.html.
Taylor, D., (2020). A timeline of the coronavirus pandemic. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/article/coronavirus-timeline.html
The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. (2018). GLAAD Media Reference Guide – 10th Edition. Retrieved from https://www.glaad.org/reference
UNC Greensboro. (2017). Words Matter Campaign. Retrieved from https://intercultural.uncg.edu/education-training/words-matter-campaign
Wolitski, R. (2018). Words Matter: Communicating to End HIV-Related Stigma. Retrieved from https://www.hiv.gov/blog/words-matter-communicating-to-end-hiv-related-stigma
Yeung, J. (2020). Chinese restaurants are losing business over coronavirus fears. An Australian social media campaign wants to change that. Retrieved from Https://Www.cnn.com/2020/02/18/Australia/Australia-Chinese-Restaurants-Coronavirus-Intl-Hnk-Scli/Index.html.