How Deeply Do You Think About Language?

“I’m having a hard time getting through this because of the language. The constant referral to incarcerated individuals as inmates speaks to the inhumane vantage point from which they are viewed by society. Imagine if we all were forever referred to by the result of our worst decision in life?”

This was my response to a recent email I received inviting me to write a piece about mass incarceration. The email continuously referred to people incarcerated as “inmates.” As a teacher — an English teacher, no less — I am intimately acquainted with the power of words. I believe that I am uniquely equipped to enlighten others about this because of how deeply I think about language. Especially considering the effect that words have on children’s perception of themselves, I have becoming more sensitive to the language I choose when engaging with them. It has been my students with an absent parent — whether it be due to death, abandonment, or incarceration – that have led the way for this mindfulness. Speak to a person’s humanity, first, foremost, and solely. The Osborne Association, an organization dedicated to the betterment of those impacted by incarceration agree.

For many years, the Osborne Association has joined with fellow criminal justice organizations to promote the use of humanizing, neutral, person-first language for individuals involved in the criminal justice system. We are at a turning point in the national conversation on criminal justice. For individuals and organizations working to dismantle mass incarceration and support the people it affects, there is clear value in respecting and believing in human dignity: to offer opportunities that honor all of our capacities to change.

When it comes to children with an incarcerated parent, even if many of the reports and resources referenced use the term “inmate”, educators can and should change our language. More education on the subject is sorely needed, but this is a good starting off point.

“What we need is a criminal justice policy for *people* who commit crime—incarcerated *people*, *people* with felony convictions, *people* on parole, even *people* who have caused great harm and should be held meaningfully accountable. Any truly effective policy solutions will make central the humanity of everyone directly impacted by crime—including those who commit it.”

–Danielle Sered, Director, Common Justice, Vera institute of Justice, excerpted from The Marshall Project’s Inmate. Prisoner. Other. Discussed.

Notice the purposeful use of positive language that refers to the person, not his or her crime. There are so many implications here about how our thinking impacts the results that ensue from our actions. Perhaps the gross disparity in the rate of Black and Brown children carted off to prison from their classrooms has to do with the way their teachers think and speak about them. Are you afraid of your students? Do you call them thugs? Niggers? Thots? What about stupid? Do you refer to them as “those kids” and if you do, what does that mean exactly? Do you often refer to your students as being “bad”? Are those “bad” kids often Black and Brown boys and girls? A personal assessment of the language that we as teachers use is definitely warranted on a regular basis.

To be knowingly ignorant is dangerous. To remain as such after exposure to enlightenment is lethal; however, to move toward the light that knowledge shines in us is the epitome of human existence. It is then and only then that we will truly self-actualize and live out what it truly means to be an educator and an influencer.

“I apologize for using that term, Vivett — very insensitive (and unwoke) of me. I learn so much from you….I must also apologize…I know I’ve used the term “inmates” in this thread as well…I appreciate your education on the subject!”

My colleagues got it. We reached a place of mutual understanding and improvement. This why such conversations are so important; for in so doing, we learn an immense deal from each other. This learning promulgates change. This is my understanding of the premise of education as the biggest change agent for everything we face. At the root of all of this, is our chosen language.

What do you think?

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